From the Horror to the Envy of Africa: Rwanda’s Ruler Holds Tight Grip

Blood coursed through the streets of Rwanda’s capital, Kigali, in April 1994 as machete-wielding militiamen began a campaign of genocide that killed as many as 800,000 people, one of the great horrors of the late 20th century.

Thirty years later, Kigali is the envy of Africa. Smooth streets curl past gleaming towers that hold banks, luxury hotels and tech startups. There is a Volkswagen car plant and an mRNA vaccine facility. A 10,000-seat arena hosts Africa’s biggest basketball league and concerts by stars like Kendrick Lamar, the American rapper, who performed there in December.

Tourists fly in to visit Rwanda’s famed gorillas. Government officials from other African countries arrive for lessons in good governance. The electricity is reliable. Traffic cops do not solicit bribes. Violence is rare.

The architect of this stunning transformation, President Paul Kagame, achieved it with harsh methods that would normally attract international condemnation. Opponents are jailed, free speech is curtailed and critics often die in murky circumstances, even those living in the West. Mr. Kagame’s soldiers have been accused of massacre and plunder in the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo.

For decades, Western leaders have looked past Mr. Kagame’s abuses. Some have expressed guilt for their failure to halt the genocide, when Hutu extremists massacred people mostly from Mr. Kagame’s Tutsi ethnic group. Rwanda’s tragic history makes it an “immensely special case,” Tony Blair, the former British prime minister, once said.

Mr. Kagame will commemorate the 30th anniversary of the genocide on Sunday, when he is expected to lay wreaths at mass graves, light a flame of remembrance and deliver a solemn speech that may well reinforce his message of exceptionalism. “Never again,” he often says.

But the anniversary is also a sharp reminder that Mr. Kagame, 66, has been in power for just as long. He won the last presidential election with 99 percent of votes. The outcome of the next one, scheduled for July, is in little doubt. Under Rwanda’s Constitution, he could rule for another decade.

The milepost has given new ammunition to critics who say that Mr. Kagame’s repressive tactics, previously seen as necessary — even by critics — to stabilize Rwanda after the genocide, increasingly appear to be a way for him to entrench his iron rule.

Questions are also growing about where he is leading his country. Although he claims to have effectively banished ethnicity from Rwanda, critics — including diplomats, former government officials and many other Rwandans — say he presides over a system that is shaped by unspoken ethnic cleavages that make the prospect of genuine reconciliation seem as distant as ever.

A spokeswoman for Rwanda’s government did not respond to questions for this article. The authorities declined accreditation to me to enter the country. A second Times reporter has been allowed in.

Ethnic Tutsis dominate the top echelons of Mr. Kagame’s government, while the Hutus who make up 85 percent of the population remain excluded from true power, critics say. It is a sign that ethnic division, despite surface appearances, is still very much a factor in the way Rwanda is ruled.

“The Kagame regime is creating the very conditions that cause political violence in our country,” Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza, his most prominent political opponent, said by phone from Kigali. “Lack of democracy, absence of rule of law, social and political exclusion — it’s the same problems we had before.”

Ms. Ingabire, a Hutu, returned to Rwanda from exile in 2010 to run against Mr. Kagame for president. She lost, and months later was imprisoned on charges of conspiracy and terrorism. Released in 2018, when Mr. Kagame pardoned her, Ms. Ingabire cannot travel abroad and is barred from standing in the election in July.

“I agree with those who say Rwanda needed a strongman ruler after the genocide, to bring order in our country, ” she said. “But today, after 30 years, we need strong institutions more than we need strong men.”

Mr. Kagame burst into power in July 1994, sweeping into Kigali at the head of a Tutsi-dominated rebel group, the Rwandan Patriotic Front, which ousted the Hutu extremists who orchestrated the genocide. Randy Strash, a worker with the aid agency World Vision, arrived a few weeks later to find a “ghost town.”

“No gas stations, no stores, no communications,” he recalled. “Abandoned vehicles by the side of the road, riddled with bullets. At night, the sound of gunshots and hand grenades. It was something else.”

Mr. Strash set up his tent across the street from a camp where Mr. Kagame was quartered. Hutu fighters attacked the camp several times, trying to kill Mr. Kagame, Mr. Strash said. But it was not until a decade later, at an event at the University of Washington, that he met the Rwandan leader in person.

“Very polite and reasonable in his responses,” Mr. Strash recalled. “Clear, thoughtful and thought-provoking.”

Historical documents released by Human Rights Watch this week show how much U.S. leaders knew about the slaughter as it unfolded. Writing to President Bill Clinton on May 16, 1994, the researcher Alison Des Forges urged him “to protect these defenseless civilians from murderous militia.”

Since coming to power, Mr. Kagame has had a reputation for spending aid wisely and promoting forward-looking economic policies. Although former aides have accused him of manipulating official statistics to exaggerate progress, Rwanda’s trajectory is impressive: Average life expectancy rose to 66 years from 40 years between 1994 and 2021, the United Nations says.

One of Mr. Kagame’s first acts was to publicly erase the dangerous divisions that had fueled the genocide. He banned the terms Hutu and Tutsi from identity cards and effectively criminalized public discussion of ethnicity. “We are all Rwandan” became the national motto.

But in reality, ethnicity continued to suffuse nearly every aspect of life, reinforced by Mr. Kagame’s policies. “Everyone knows who is who,” said Joseph Sebarenzi, a Tutsi who served as the president of Rwanda’s Parliament until 2000, when he fled into exile.

A survey published last year by Filip Reyntjens, a Belgian professor and outspoken Kagame critic, found that 82 percent of 199 top government positions were held by ethnic Tutsi — and nearly 100 percent in Mr. Kagame’s office. American diplomats reached a similar conclusion in 2008, after conducting their own survey of Rwanda’s power structure.

Mr. Kagame “must begin to share authority with Hutus to a much greater degree” if his country were to surmount the divides of the genocide, the U.S. Embassy wrote in a cable that was later published by WikiLeaks.

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

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

A perception of selective justice rubs salt into those wounds. Mr. Kagame’s troops killed 25,000 to 45,000 people, mostly Hutu civilians, from April to August 1994, according to disputed U.N. findings. Yet fewer than 40 of his officers have been tried for those crimes, according to Human Rights Watch.

The Hutu killings are incomparable in scale or nature to the genocide. But Mr. Kagame’s lopsided approach to dealing with those events is hampering Rwandans’ ability to reconcile and move on, critics say.

“Anyone not familiar with Rwanda might think that everything is fine,” Mr. Sebarenzi said. “People work together, they go to church together, they do business together. That is good. But under the carpet, those ethnic divisions are still there.”

Although Mr. Kagame has appointed Hutus to senior positions in government since 1994, including prime minister and defense minister, those appointees have little real power, said Omar Khalfan, a former official with Rwanda’s national intelligence service who fled into exile in the United States in 2015.

Tutsi loyalists are planted in the offices of senior Hutus to keep an eye on them, said Mr. Khalfan, a Tutsi. “The regime doesn’t want to speak about ethnicity because it raises the issue of power-sharing,” he said. “And they don’t want that.”

In the West, Mr. Kagame is a firm favorite at gatherings of the global elite such as the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, where he met with President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine in January. But at home, those who publicly challenge him risk arrest, torture or death.

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

But on the 20th anniversary, Mr. Mihigo released a song that in coded lyrics called on Rwandans to show empathy for both Tutsi and Hutu victims — effectively, a call for greater reconciliation.

Mr. Kagame was furious. A presidential aide said he “didn’t like my song, and that I should ask him for forgiveness,” Mr. Mihigo recalled in 2016. If the singer refused to comply, he added, “they said I’d be dead.”

Mr. Mihigo apologized but was convicted on treason charges and imprisoned. Released four years later, he found he was blacklisted as a singer. In 2020, he was arrested again as he tried to slip across the border to Burundi and, four days later, found dead in a police station.

The government said Mr. Mihigo had taken his life, but few believed it. “He was a very strong Christian who believed in God,” said Ms. Ingabire, the opposition politician, who came to know Mr. Mihigo in prison. “I can’t believe this is true.”

The Rwandan singer Kizito Mihigo in 2014.Credit…Stephanie Aglietti/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Mr. Kagame’s reach extends across the globe. Rights groups have documented dozens of cases of Rwandan exiles being intimidated, attacked or assassinated by presumed agents of the state in at least a dozen countries, including Canada, Australia and South Africa.

Mr. Khalfan, the former intelligence officer, said he was approached at home in Ohio in 2019 by a man he identified as an undercover Rwandan agent. The man tried to lure him to Dubai — a similar ruse to the one that caused Paul Rusesabagina, a Hutu hotelier whose story featured in the movie “Hotel Rwanda,” to be tricked into returning to the country in 2020.

Mr. Rusesabagina was released from prison last year, after years of U.S. pressure. The episode only underscored how little real resistance Mr. Kagame faces at home. But a more immediate worry lies across the border, in eastern Congo.

There, the United States and the United Nations have publicly accused Rwanda of sending troops and missiles in support of M23, a notorious rebel group that swept across the territory in recent months, causing widespread displacement and suffering. The M23 has long been seen as a Rwandan proxy force in Congo, where Mr. Kagame’s troops have been accused of plundering rare minerals and massacring civilians. Rwanda denies the charges.

The crisis has cooled Mr. Kagame’s relations with the United States, his largest foreign donor, American officials say. Senior Biden administration officials traveled to Rwanda, Congo and, more discreetly, Tanzania in recent months in an effort to prevent the crisis from spiraling into a regional war. In August, the United States imposed sanctions on a senior Rwandan military commander for his role in backing the M23.

U.S. officials described tense, sometimes confrontational meetings between Mr. Kagame and senior American officials, including the U.S.A.I.D. administrator, Samantha Power, over Rwanda’s role in eastern Congo.

Mr. Kagame has often denied that Rwandan troops are in Congo, but he appeared to tacitly admit the opposite in a recent interview with Jeune Afrique magazine.

In justifying their presence, he fell back on familiar logic: that he was acting to prevent a second genocide, this time against the ethnic Tutsi population in eastern Congo.

Arafat Mugabo contributed reporting.

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