Rwanda’s Kagame Begins New Term Amid Controversy

Seven-year term starts amid controversy surrounding possible Congo genocide.

Kigali, Rwanda – Rwandan president Paul Kagame began a new seven-year term last week, days after the leak of a United Nations report suggesting his armed forces may have committed genocide during Rwanda’s 1996-1997 military operations in neighboring eastern Congo.

Kagame, who was re-elected last month with 93 percent of the popular vote, took Rwanda’s oath of office during a ceremony at Kigali’s Amahoro Stadium. More than a dozen African heads of state attended, including continental heavyweights Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia, Mwai Kibaki of Kenya, Goodluck Jonathan of Nigeria and Liberia’s “Iron Lady” Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

The loudest applause was reserved for Congolese President Joseph Kabila, son of former rebel leader Laurent-Desire Kabila, who overthrew longtime dictator Mobutu Sese Seko with Rwandan backing during the period under scrutiny by the United Nations.

The 545-page draft report, first revealed by Le Monde, investigates war crimes and crimes against humanity committed between 1993 and 2003 by the security forces of six nations and numerous rebel groups — including remnants of Rwanda’s former government that fled to Congo (then known as Zaire) after Kagame’s Rwandan Patriotic Army (RPA) captured Kigali in the wake of the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

Yet the document’s most contentious allegations concern the RPA and Kabila’s AFDL rebels it supported. Both armies, the report charges, committed “systematic and widespread attacks” resulting in the death of tens of thousands of Congolese Hutus and Rwandan Hutu refugees between 1996 and 1997.

“If they were proven before a competent court,” the report states, the attacks “could be classified as crimes of genocide.”

To a regime widely credited for ending the Rwandan genocide — the 1994 bloodbath in which more than 800,000 Tutsi and moderate Hutu were killed by government-backed Hutu death squads — the “genocide” wording is no small matter.

Though atrocities committed by the RPA have long been documented, the report contradicts the conventional narrative of the Rwandan genocide and its aftermath, in which Kagame’s forces are presented as liberators and Hutu civilian deaths as the grisly consequences of war — similar to civilian casualties caused by allied forces during World War II — and not part of a planned extermination exercise.

Rwanda has long justified its invasion of Congo as an act of self-defense, organized to rid itself of threats from the former government, which plotted a return to power while mixing among the masses of Hutu civilian refugees it herded into exile when the RPA took power in Kigali. Despite the atrocities documented, Rwanda managed to repatriate the majority of the estimated 2 million Hutu refugees that had settled in camps across the Congo border.

As expected, the Rwandan government reacted to the leaked report with indignation, accusing the U.N. — which failed to adopt measures many experts believe could have stopped the 1994 genocide — of moral hypocrisy.

“It is immoral and unacceptable that the United Nations, an organization that failed outright to prevent genocide in Rwanda and the subsequent refugees crisis that is the direct cause for so much suffering in Congo and Rwanda, now accuses the army that stopped the genocide of committing atrocities in the Democratic Republic of Congo,” said government spokesman Ben Rutsinga.

Two weeks ago Rwanda threatened pull its 3,300 peacekeepers from Darfur, where it is a key contributor to the joint U.N.-African Union peacekeeping mission in Sudan’s troubled western region. On Sept. 2, the U.N. announced it would delay the release of the final report until October, ostensibly to allow time for consultations on the matter with Kigali.

During his 30-minute inauguration speech, Kagame did not address the report specifically. Yet he used the occasion to lash out at foreign critics he charged “deliberately misrepresented the situation in Rwanda” in advance of the election — a period that included the silencing of critical opposition candidates and a string of violent acts he says were unfairly attributed to his government.

Foreign media and human rights groups, he said, “sought to give the impression that something terribly wrong was going on in our country, as if the country was really falling apart.”

“Habitual critics of Rwanda may say what they want, but they will never dictate the direction we take as a nation, nor will they make a dent on our quest for self determination,” he added, before reiterating his commitment to Rwanda’s continued economic growth and development.

Though Rwanda remains one of the world’s least developed nations, Kagame has been widely praised for his government’s progress in battling corruption, promoting food security, improving health and education, and investing in clean energy and infrastructure. Through an ambitious development agenda known as Vision 2020, his administration is bent on transforming this primarily agricultural nation into a regional leader in information and communications technology and education and potential development prototype for Africa.

“The biggest problem Africa faces is not the lack of democracy but poverty and the dependence which comes with under-development,” Kagame said.

Having pledged this will be his final term as president, Kagame has seven years to pursue his development agenda while grooming a likely successor. Yet given his commanding influence over most state institutions, some believe he may change the constitution and stay in office after 2017, particularly if he sees his leaving as a threat to Rwanda’s hard-earned stability.

“If things continue to go the way they are now, the temptation would be very high for him to stay on,” said Muzong Kodi, associate fellow in the Africa Program at the London-based think tank Chatham House.

Yet Kagame is adamant he will allow new leadership to emerge.

“Personally I don’t want to be involved in changing the constitution so that I stay in power,” he told local radio after his re-election. “If you have had a Kagame around for this long and he has failed to identify one who has a capacity to take over, I would take that as a failure on my part.”