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From terror to jealousy in Africa: Rwanda’s rulers cling to power

In April 1994, the streets of Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, flowed with blood as militias armed with machetes began a genocidal campaign that killed up to 800,000 people. This was one of the great horrors of the late 20th century.

Thirty years later, Kigali is the envy of Africa. Flat streets wind past gleaming towers housing banks, luxury hotels and technology startups.There is a Volkswagen factory here and a mRNA vaccine facilityThe 10,000-seat stadium hosts Africa’s largest basketball league and stars such as American rapper Kendrick Lamar held a concert there in December.

Tourists fly in to see Rwanda’s famous gorillas. Government officials from other African countries come to learn about good governance. Electricity is reliable. Traffic police do not ask for bribes. Violence is rare.

President Paul Kagame, the architect of this astonishing turnaround, achieved this goal with harsh tactics that often draw international condemnation. Opponents are imprisoned, free speech is restricted, and critics often die in dark circumstances, even those living in the West. Mr Kagame’s soldiers have been accused of killing and looting in neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo.

For decades, Western leaders ignored Mr. Kagame’s atrocities.some people already Feeling guilty about one’s failure In an effort to stop the genocide, Hutu extremists massacred Mr. Kagame’s Tutsis. Rwanda’s tragic history makes it a “extremely special circumstances”, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair once said.

Mr Kagame will mark the 30th anniversary of the genocide on Sunday by laying wreaths at mass graves, lighting commemorative fires and delivering a solemn speech that is likely to reinforce his message of exceptionalism. Say it often.

But the anniversary also serves as a poignant reminder that Mr. Kagame, 66, has been in power for just as long. He won the last presidential election with 99% of the vote. The outcome of the next presidential election, scheduled for July, is uncertain. Suspect. According to Rwanda’s constitution, he can rule for another ten years.

The milestone provides new ammunition to critics who say Kagame’s repressive tactics, previously considered necessary, even by critics, to stabilize Rwanda after the genocide, increasingly appear to be his entrenchment. A way to rule with an iron fist.

Questions are mounting about the direction he is leading the country. Although he claims to have effectively eradicated racial discrimination in Rwanda, critics including diplomats, former government officials and many other Rwandans say he presided over a system shaped by unspoken racial divisions , making the prospect of true reconciliation seem as distant as ever.

A spokesman for the Rwandan government did not respond to questions for this article. The authorities refused to allow me to enter the country. A second Times reporter has been allowed into the country.

Critics say Tutsis dominate the top ranks of Kagame’s government, while Hutus, who make up 85 percent of the population, remain excluded from real power. This shows that, despite appearances, ethnic divisions remain an important factor in the way Rwanda is governed.

“The Kagame regime is creating conditions that lead to political violence in our country. There is a lack of democracy, a lack of The rule of law, social and political exclusion – these are the same issues we’ve had before.”

Ms. Ingabire, an ethnic Hutu, returned to Rwanda from exile in 2010 to run for president against Mr. Kagame. She was arrested, barred from running in the election and later imprisoned on conspiracy and terrorism charges. Mr Kagame was released in 2018, when he was ethnic Hutu. Kagame pardoned her, and Ms Ingabire was unable to travel abroad and was banned from participating in the July elections.

She said: “I agree with some people that Rwanda needed a strong ruler to bring order to our country after the genocide. But today, thirty years later, we need strong institutions more than a strongman. . ”

Mr Kagame came to power in July 1994, leading the Rwandan Patriotic Front, a Tutsi-dominated rebel group that swept into Kigali and ousted Hutu extremists who had planned genocide. Randy Strash, a staff member from the aid agency World Vision arrived a few weeks later to find a “ghost town.”

“There were no gas stations, no shops, no communications,” he recalled. “Abandoned vehicles on the roadside, riddled with bullets. At night, the sound of gunshots and grenades. It was something else.”

Mr. Strache set up a tent opposite the camp where Mr. Kagame was staying. Mr. Strache said Hutu militants had repeatedly attacked the camp in an attempt to kill Mr. Kagame. But it wasn’t until a decade later, at an event at the University of Washington, that he met with Rwandan leaders in person.

“His answers were very polite and reasonable,” Strache recalled. “Clear, thoughtful, and thought-provoking.”

Historical documents released by Human Rights Watch This week, we show how little U.S. leaders knew about this massacre. On May 16, 1994, researchers wrote to President Bill Clinton Alison Des Forges urges him “Protect these unarmed civilians from a murderous militia.”

Since coming to power, Mr. Kagame has been known for spending aid wisely and pursuing forward-looking economic policies.Despite accusations from his former assistant Manipulation of official statistics To put it bluntly, Rwanda’s development trajectory is impressive: from 1994 to 2021, the average life expectancy in Rwanda rose from 40 to 66 years, according to the United Nations.

One of Mr. Kagame’s first actions was to publicly address the dangerous divisions that fueled the genocide. He banned the use of the terms “Hutu” and “Tutsi” on identity cards and ID documents. Crime effectively defines public discussion of race“We are all Rwandans” became the national motto.

But in reality, racial discrimination continues to permeate nearly every aspect of life, fueled by Mr. Kagame’s policies. “Everyone knows who is who,” said Joseph Sebarenzi, a Tutsi who served as speaker of Rwanda’s parliament until he fled to Rwanda in 2000. exile.

A survey is released A study last year by Filip Reyntjens, a Belgian professor and outspoken Kagame critic, found that 82% of 199 top government positions were held by Tutsis, and almost 100% were in Mr. Kagame’s office. A 2008 study conducted by U.S. diplomats came to similar conclusions. Their own investigation into Rwanda’s power structure.

The US embassy said Mr Kagame “must start sharing power to a greater extent with the Hutu” if his country is to overcome divisions over the genocide wrote in cable Later published by WikiLeaks.

Critics accuse Kagame of using the memory of the 1994 events to suppress the Hutu majority.

Official commemorations refer to the “Tutsi genocide” but downplay or ignore the tens of thousands of moderate Hutus who were also killed, often trying to save their Tutsi neighbors.

The idea of ​​selective justice rubs salt into these wounds. According to disputed accounts, Kagame’s forces killed between 25,000 and 45,000 people, mostly Hutu civilians, from April to August 1994. UN findingsHowever, according to Human Rights Watch, fewer than 40 of his officers have been tried for these crimes.

The Hutu killings cannot be compared to genocide in either scale or nature. But critics say Mr Kagame’s uneven approach to the events is hampering Rwandans’ ability to reconcile and move on.

“Anyone unfamiliar with Rwanda might think that everything is fine,” Sebalenzi said. “People work together, go to church together, do business together. That’s good. But behind the scenes, those ethnic divisions still exist. “”.

Omar Khalfan, a former official in Rwanda’s national intelligence service, said that although Mr. Kagame has appointed Hutus to senior government positions since 1994, including as prime minister and defense minister, few of these appointees real power. 2015.

Tutsi loyalists were placed in the offices of senior Hutu officials to spy on them, said Mr. Khalfan, who is Tutsi. “The regime doesn’t want to talk about race because it raises questions about power sharing,” he said. “They don’t want that.”

In the West, Mr Kagame is a favorite at gatherings of the world’s elite, such as the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Meeting with President Volodymyr Zelensky But at home, those who openly challenge him risk arrest, torture or death.

Ten years ago, charismatic gospel singer Kizito Mihigo was one of Rwanda’s most popular artists. Mihigo, a Tutsi who lost his parents during the genocide, often sang at genocide commemorations and was said to be close to Mr Kagame’s wife, Jeannette. .

But on the 20th anniversary, Mihigo released a song with lyrics calling on Rwandans to express sympathy for Tutsi and Hutu victims – effectively calling for greater reconciliation.

Mr Kagame was furious.A presidential aide said he ‘didn’t like my song and I should ask for his forgiveness’, Mr Mihigo 2016 recall. He added that if the singer refused to comply, “they said I would die.”

Mr Mihigo apologized but was convicted of treason and jailed. Released four years later, he found himself blacklisted as a singer. He was arrested again in 2020 while trying to cross the border to Burundi and was found dead at a police station four days later.

The government said Mr Mihigo had committed suicide, but few believed it. “He is a very committed Christian who believes in God,” said Ms. Ingabire, an opposition politician who met Mr. Mihigo in prison. Can’t believe this is true. “

In 2014, Rwandan singer Kizito Mihigo.Credit…Stephanie Arrieti/AFP — Getty Images

Mr. Kagame’s influence spans the globe.Human rights organizations have Record dozens of cases Rwandan exiles have been intimidated, attacked or assassinated by presumed state agents in at least a dozen countries, including Canada, Australia and South Africa.

Halfan, a former intelligence officer, said he was approached at his home in Ohio in 2019 by a man he identified as an undercover Rwandan agent. The man was trying to lure him to Dubai, a situation similar to his. The conspiracy that led to Paul RusesabaginaThe story of a Hutu hotelier featured in the film Hotel Rwanda was tricked into returning to the country in 2020.

Mr Rusesabagina released Released from prison last year, After years of pressure from the United States. The incident only highlights how little real resistance Mr Kagame faces at home. The current concern lies on the other side of the borderin eastern Congo.

There, the United States and the United Nations have publicly accused Rwanda of sending troops and missiles to support the notorious rebel group M23, which has swept across the country’s territory in recent months, causing widespread displacement and suffering. Rwandan Proxy Forces In Congo, Kagame’s forces have been accused of looting rare minerals and massacring civilians. Rwanda denies the accusations.

U.S. officials say the crisis has chilled Kagame’s relationship with the United States, his biggest foreign donor.Senior Biden Administration Officials Travel to RwandaIn recent months, the United States has imposed sanctions on a senior Rwandan military commander over his actions in an effort to prevent the crisis from escalating into a regional war. Supports M23 roles.

U.S. officials said Kagame held tense and sometimes confrontational meetings with senior U.S. officials including Samantha Power, the head of the U.S. Agency for International Development, over Rwanda’s role in eastern Congo.

Mr Kagame has often denied that Rwandan troops are present in Congo, but in a recent interview he appeared to acquiesce to the contrary. Interview with “Young Africa” ​​magazine.

In justifying their existence, he employed familiar logic: He acted to prevent a second genocide, this time against the Tutsi population in eastern Congo.

Arafat Mugabo Contributed reporting.

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