Failure to intervene in 1994’s horror means the US and UK have refused to rein in President Paul Kagame’s excesses in Congo
The United States is allowing one tragic foreign policy failure to compound another.
Eighteen years ago, President Bill Clinton watched passively as the Hutu extremist regime in Rwanda oversaw the murder of hundreds of thousands of Tutsis. His administration refused even to utter the word genocide for fear it would oblige the US to intervene.
Clinton wasn’t alone. One of the leaders of the Tutsi rebels fighting the genocidal regime told me at the time that during his attempts to persuade the UK government to intervene at the UN, he concluded that British officials regarded the Tutsi victims as little more than ants. The French spent their time trying to get the UN to authorise action that would have propped up the Hutu extremist leadership because they feared the alternative would diminish Paris’s influence in central Africa.
The aftermath was a searing experience for Clinton, his Africa gurus and national security advisers – one of whom is now the US ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, who may well replace Hillary Clinton as secretary of state – that has continued to shape American policy toward Rwanda. When the fighting ended, the true cost of western inaction was laid bare at the mass graves.
The scale of the killing was mind-boggling. I saw it first hand a church in the small town of Kibuye, where 11,000 were murdered in a single day and 10,000 more were killed the following day in the football stadium.
So it was only natural that, driven by a large dose of guilt, the US, Britain and other western countries – although, tellingly, not France – should throw their backing behind the man who put an end to the genocide and promised to build a new Rwanda: Paul Kagame. Nearly two decades later, though, guilt over the genocide has led the west to stand by while another crime is committed – this time, by Kagame and his forces in neighbouring Congo, where they are directly and indirectly responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands, some say millions.
Finally, Britain and Europe are waking up to this, following the comprehensive UN investigation charting Rwanda’s role in creating and arming a Congolese rebel group, M23, led by a man wanted by the International Criminal Court on war crimes charges. But the US still hesitates to tell Kagame that one crime does not justify another.
The Rwandan leader inherited an incredibly difficult situation in 1994. As a Tutsi, he was viewed with suspicion by the Hutu majority, which feared retribution. Kagame had not only to rebuild the country but to bring the guilty to justice, with meagre resources, while promoting reconciliation and ridding his country of officially sanctioned anti-Tutsi hatred. He has done better than might have been expected given the obstacles he faced. Early on, Kagame also had to contend with the Hutu extremist forces, which fled into what was then neighbouring Zaire and continued to threaten Rwanda.
Washington and London were unflinching in their support when, in 1996, Rwanda invaded Zaire to clear the sprawling UN refugee camps that housed the genocidal forces running murderous cross-border raids and threatening to kick start a new genocide. That invasion was justified – but support for Kagame should have been tempered by the actions of his army, which hunted down and massacred Hutus who failed to return to the Rwanda.
Many of them could be regarded as a legitimate enemy. But many were not, including the thousands of women and children slaughtered by the Rwandan military and its proxies. This was also the start of the mass rape by armed groups that has since plagued eastern Congo.
The Rwandan military, with its allies from Uganda and Burundi, then turned to the extremely lucrative plunder of Congo’s valuable minerals. That was the point at which the US and Britain should have made a stand. Instead, they turned a blind eye.
It was right that the west’s policy should be guided by guilt over the original genocide. It was right to support Rwanda’s reconstruction. But that tiny country’s future and the stability of central Africa have not been served by Washington and London’s years of unquestioning support of Kagame on the grounds that he has a good record on reconstruction and development (in expanding rural healthcare, getting children into school and building programmes to help small-scale family farmers), while all but ignoring what he is doing across Rwanda’s western border.
The Americans and the British have more recently been prepared to chide Kagame privately for closing down political space – which means no effective opposition has been allowed to develop to challenge his lengthy rule. Opponents have been jailed on the spurious grounds of spreading genocide ideology, and dissenters have been driven into exile.
But on Rwanda’s involvement in Congo, there has been virtual silence.
Who knows how many have died there – some studies put it in the millions – but various forces allied to the Rwandans have been responsible for years of murder, mass rape and forms of ethnic cleansing. This is tragic in its own right. But it is also not good for Rwanda’s future because it is contributing to the very instability it says it intervened in Congo to prevent.
After 15 years of invasions, insurgencies and trauma, a generation is emerging in eastern Congo that blames Rwanda for its suffering. And when those Congolese talk about Rwandans in this context, they often mean Tutsis.
Kagame has influential friends. Bill Clinton continues to defend him, describing Kagame as “one of the greatest leaders of our time” and Rwanda as “the best-run nation in Africa”. It’s hard to imagine that view doesn’t have some influence on his wife, the US secretary of state. Similarly, Rwanda policy is also strongly influenced by Susan Rice, who has spoken of her deep regret at her part in American inaction during the genocide.
Kagame also has a strong supporter in Tony Blair, who runs a foundation in Rwanda, which places officials in the president’s policy unit, the prime minister’s office and the cabinet secretariat. Two years ago, I asked Blair about Kagame. The former British prime minister called the Rwandan president a “visionary leader” and a friend. He said allowances had to be made for the consequences of the genocide and suggested Kagame’s economic record outweighed other concerns:
“I’m a believer in and a supporter of Paul Kagame. I don’t ignore all those criticisms, having said that. But I do think you’ve got to recognise that Rwanda is an immensely special case because of the genocide. Secondly, you can’t argue with the fact that Rwanda has gone on a remarkable path of development. Every time I visit Kigali and the surrounding areas you can just see the changes being made in the country.”
But a sound economic policy hardly justifies the years of abuses in Congo.
Rwanda has legitimate concerns about who and what is across its border. The remnants of the Hutu extremist forces are still there, twisting a new generation with a genocidal ideology dressed up as a liberation struggle. The Congolese government has not proved able, or particularly willing, to assert its authority over the region. But Kagame, for all his denials about intervention in Congo, is contributing to that instability and the continued suffering of large numbers of Congolese, while jeopardising his own country’s future.
Tellingly, this week, a US intelligence portrait of how the world may look in 2030 says that Rwanda is at high risk of becoming a failed state by then. Even Britain – the most stalwart of allies to Kagame from the days when Blair’s international development secretary, Clare Short, was a cheerleader for the Rwandan president – has decided to take a step back by withholding aid.
This week, a coalition of campaign groups and thinktanks have written to Barack Obama accusing him of a failed policy over Rwanda and calling on the president to withhold non-humanitarian aid and impose sanctions against Kagame’s defence minister and other Rwandan officials with ties to Congo rebels. The letter is signed by 15 organisations, including George Soros’s Open Society Foundations, Global Witness, Freedom House and the Africa Faith and Justice Network. Human Rights Watch has made a similar call following its own detailed investigation of crimes against humanity committed by Rwandan-allied forces in Congo.
The Obama administration should heed the call. Kagame’s legitimacy comes less from highly-manipulated elections than from the recognition he gets at home and abroad as the man who stopped the genocide. Washington should now tell him that no longer gives him a free hand in Congo.