The high price of stability

Rwanda is going through the democratic motions, writes Adrian Blomfield

01 August 2017 - 08:19 By © The Daily Telegraph
PEACEMAKER: Rwandan President Paul Kagame has been in charge of the country since 2000 after taking over from Pasteur Bizimungu. The country was ravaged by a genocide in 1994 in which 800000 people were killed, most of them members of Kagame's Tutsi minority.
PEACEMAKER: Rwandan President Paul Kagame has been in charge of the country since 2000 after taking over from Pasteur Bizimungu. The country was ravaged by a genocide in 1994 in which 800000 people were killed, most of them members of Kagame's Tutsi minority.
Image: Marco Longari/AFP

Paul Kagame, Rwanda's order-obsessed president, is fond of palm trees. Every boulevard in his capital, Kigali, is bisected by them. Council workers hose them down with detergent every night.

Any motorist who damages one faces a R15,500 fine, more than a year's wages for most Rwandans.

For foreigners it is proof of the president's reputation for turning a country once ravaged by genocide into one of the best-managed states in Africa.

But for critics it is an example of how the West has been hoodwinked into propping up a murderous regime that has squandered millions in aid on vanity projects while most Rwandans welter in hidden poverty.

On Friday Rwandans will go through the motions of a presidential election the outcome of which is known to all.

Kagame is the West's favourite African autocrat after rebuilding his shattered country following the massacre of 800,000 people, most of them members of his Tutsi minority. He exercises almost total control over all aspects of life in Rwanda.

With regime agents everywhere, it is little wonder that when parliament embarked on a nationwide consultation to ask Rwandans if Kagame should change the constitution to stay in power only 10 people demurred.

Already Rwanda's most powerful man for the past 23 years, 17 of them as president, Kagame is now able to remain in office until 2034, by which time he will be 77.

Western criticism of the president's constitutional heist has been muted, despite mounting alarm over the disappearance and murder of prominent regime opponents during Kagame's most recent term.

There is little sign of Western donors cutting aid. The UK, Rwanda's biggest direct donor, will give £64-million this year, despite UK police intercepting an assassin at Folkestone harbour in 2011 who had been sent to murder two Rwandan dissidents living in Britain.

All too frequently, at home and abroad, the assassins have succeeded.

Days after the body of Patrick Karegeya, his former intelligence chief, was found in his Johannesburg hotel room in 2014, Kagame told supporters: "Whoever betrays the country will pay the price, I assure you."

Given the political climate and Kagame's record in previous elections (he has always won more than 90% of the vote) it is a surprise that anyone is standing against him

Outspoken critics have been barred from standing, among them Diane Rwigara, a member of the Tutsi elite who maintains that the regime murdered her father.

For all his authoritarianism, Kagame's defenders argue that there was no way the president could have rebuilt his country and defended his fellow Tutsis had he acted more democratically. 

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