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Rwanda’s Real Paul Kagame: a Strongman, Not a Statesman | Commentary

By David Himbara Why are the world’s governmental, financial and media elites holding a long-term love affair with an authoritarian ruler who has been condemned time and again for human rights violations, including detaining and even “disappearing” his political opponents?  

That is the question posed by Rwandan President Paul Kagame’s seemingly charmed life. While being lambasted by respected human rights advocates, he is lionized by global movers-and-shakers from Davos to the halls of Congress, to the White House.  

In recent weeks, two respected watchdog organizations criticized Kagame’s increasingly repressive regime. In its annual evaluation of civil liberties around the world, Freedom House categorized the Central and East African nation as “not free.” Rwanda’s rating fell to six on a scale of 1 to 7 (with seven being the worst), a ranking shared with China, Cuba, Iran and Russia — not the company Western leaders want their friends to keep.  

Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch reported, “… the [Rwandan] government continues to impose severe restrictions on freedom of expression and association and does not tolerate dissent … real or suspected opponents inside and outside the country continue to be targeted.”  

Human Rights Watch hinted at what Kagame himself once said of his political opponents: “Many of them tend to die.” Among these opponents are former Intelligence Chief Patrick Karegeya, who was strangled in a hotel room in Johannesburg, South Africa, last year; Theogene Turatsinze, the former director of the Development Bank of Rwanda, whose body was found floating in a lake in Mozambique in 2012; dissident newspaper editor Charles Ingabire, who was shot to death in Kampala, Uganda, in 2011; and Andre Kagwa Rwisereka, deputy president of the opposition Democratic Green Party, who was decapitated and dumped in a river in Rwanda in 2010.  

Last July, more than 40 bodies were found floating in Lake Wreru, downstream from Rwanda. Many of them had been packed in plastic bags, suggesting carefully conducted killings.  

While dead bodies keep turning up in lakes, rivers and hotel rooms, Kagame continues to be invited to the most prestigious international gatherings. In January, just as the reports on his human rights record were being released, he addressed the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. The moderator of the panel on the Millennium Development Goals, Fareed Zakaria of CNN, said the Rwandan leader should be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for achieving “the biggest success story out of the [African] continent.”  

Heady stuff, even for Kagame, who was an honored guest at the White House for a conference of African heads of state last August.  

His “celebrity” status translates into substantial foreign assistance; in 2014, $777 million of Rwanda’s $2.4 billion budget came from outside the country’s borders.  

In January alone, the United States announced that it would contribute $180 million to Rwanda, while the World Bank said it would provide $70 million. Addressing the Rwandan parliament, the International Monetary Fund’s managing director, Christine Lagarde, praised the country for “having overcome extraordinary adversity.”  

Kagame’s friends and financial supporters cannot plead ignorance about his record. There is little in the latest reports from Freedom House and Human Rights Watch that the State Department itself did not acknowledge in its own 2013 report on Rwanda’s human rights record.  

As the State Department declared: “The most important human rights problems in the country remained the government’s targeting of political opponents and human rights advocates for harassment, arrest and abuse; disregard for the rule of law among security forces and the judiciary; restrictions on civil liberties; and support of a rebel group in the neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).”  

So then when will Western leaders wake up to Kagame’s abuses?  

For this repressive ruler’s powerful patrons, it is time to ask: “Will the real Paul Kagame please stand up?” Is he the forward-thinking Davos-man or a tyrannical dictator? Is he a statesman/CEO or just another strongman? Is he really a paragon, or should his record make him a pariah?  

Members of Congress, the administration and other Western leaders should read the reports by Freedom House, Human Rights Watch and the State Department. And then they should stop honoring him at prestigious events, stop bankrolling his brutality and start speaking out loud and clear against his record of repression that makes the Rwandan people prisoners and Western leaders hypocrites.  

David Himbara is a former senior aide and economic adviser to President Paul Kagame of Rwanda. The 114th: CQ Roll Call's Guide to the New Congress Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.

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