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Kagame's hold on Rwandans

Andrew Harding | 21:34 UK time, Saturday, 7 August 2010

The crowds head towards the hilltop - thousands of Rwandans streaming in from the surrounding fields and villages. They are ushered, efficiently, into smaller groups; searched, given flags, and then guided towards orderly clusters of roped-off areas. It is all done neatly, and without fuss.

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Then come the speeches. First a local man, then a woman, stand on the podium and tell the crowd how they have become rich - quickly. The woman started with one goat. Now she has two hundred cows and seven staff. The crowd roars.

I have been to my fair share of election rallies in Africa. They do not normally start like this. They are certainly never on time. The subtext is always power, not prosperity. In Kenya, the guest speakers are usually defectors from rival parties who grovel and confess.

The cheering from the back of the crowd signals the arrival of President Paul Kagame.

Tall, thin, slow to smile - he walks down the aisle like a university professor dutifully acknowledging his students' approval, but concerned that some of their essays are not up to scratch.

On the podium, Mr Kagame claps awkwardly and briefly to the music, then he launches into a peevish lecture about unnamed forces that are trying to destabilise Rwanda. His style may be donnish, but his language is that of a soldier.

"Those who give our country a bad image... can take a rope and hang themselves," he says, peering at the television cameras.

It seems an odd line of attack.

Paul Kagame has good reason to feel as pleased as that lady with her cows.

In 1994, his rebel army ended Rwanda's genocide. Since then his government has worked to transform a shattered nation into one of Africa's least corrupt, fastest-growing, most competent countries. It is an extraordinary achievement, and most Rwandans are quick to credit their president.

But there are complications.

Rwanda may be the poster child of international development. The UK certainly thinks so - pumping huge sums into the country's impressive struggle against poverty.

But the politics here are less straightforward - still warped by the legacies of the genocide.

Frank Habineza sits at his desk in the capital, Kigali, staring at a photo on a laptop. It shows his friend and former politically ally, Andre Rwisereka, lying on his front, with his severed head facing the wrong way.

Both men used to be members of President Kagame's ruling party. But they broke away and formed Rwanda's Democratic Green Party.

They tried to register for next week's presidential election but got nowhere. Then last month, Mr Rwisereka's body was found.

"Of course I'm scared," says Mr Habineza with a shrug.

There is no evidence to link the government with the murder or to two other recent attacks - against an exiled general and a journalist investigating his case.

But there is a pattern of intolerance here - of newspapers closed down, critics arrested, and democracy curtailed.

The three candidates running against President Kagame are all his political allies. It is a coronation more than an election.

To some extent, that is understandable.

The forces that led the genocide are still intact and in exile - waiting for the chance to exploit any instability.

Mr Kagame has good reason to tread carefully and to police the political landscape closely.

And while he is doing that, his plan is to unite Rwandans - partly by rescuing them from poverty and partly by trying to rid them of the old ethnic mindset - of a downtrodden Hutu majority and their Tutsi masters, turned victims.

In speech after speech, the president urges people not to use those labels - to think of themselves purely as Rwandans.

It is a bold plan. It may well be working. But it is hard to be sure in a country where reticence and repression are woven into everyday life.

The fact remains here that 85% of the population is Hutu. The government is dominated by Tutsis. It is an uncomfortable reality that speeches alone will not change.

Still, this is an extraordinary place. I lived for a while in Singapore - and the government here has that same sense of drive and vision - and yes, the same mania for control.

I am staying now at a Chinese-built hotel overlooking the centre of Kigali. There is an African fashion-show here at the weekend and the lobby is full of long-limbed models.

Deborah is 18, and studying economics. Sure, a few years back we were divided at school, she says. Tutsis sticking together. But now it is just not an issue. It is all about making money, working hard. Rwandans love to follow orders.

She pauses, and her friend Craig sits forward. Of course we do not forget what happened, he says. We all lost people in the genocide. But we are doing fine. My worry is what happens when Kagame goes. He is what is holding this country together. Without him, I would give this place two years, then there will be another war.

This entry first featured as a report on Radio 4's From Our Own Correspondent.

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  • 1. At 10:33am on 08 Aug 2010, DrBabu wrote:

    Dr. Kagame is doing what is best for his country. Talking of Democracy at this time in the Land of Rwanda does not help. When the forces of evil were leashed and thousands of Rwandans died at the ignorance. The people need to feel as of one nation and not as of tribes which were broken up by the colonists.
    Dr Kagame may also have a strong man to lead Rwanda. It takes at least five generations before people will forget their past of hatred. Look at Singapore they also have a democracy but different type than west, but the country is very successful and have no violence. May be Rwanda will become a Singapore of Africa and lead others to prosperity and may be to democracy. The first need of people is food, shelter and security and then democracy matters. If you are hungry, naked and insecure, democracy does not matter.

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  • 2. At 1:43pm on 08 Aug 2010, BluesBerry wrote:

    President Paul Kagame does not hold Rwandans; rather he is held in high esteem by Rwandans. In 2003, his was a landslide victory - Tutsi, Hutu - 95.5% of all the votes.
    Mr Kagame knows all too well that there are external forces that are trying to destabilise Rwanda, and I am proud to hear him say: "Those who give our country a bad image...can take a rope and hang themselves."
    It was Kakame's army that ended Rwanda's genocide. The genocide stopped, but so did most corruption. Yes, there are complications, not least of which is the fact that Kakame is Tutsi in a nation that is 85% Hutu. The government is dominated by Tutsis. This is a serious disparity that must be tackled...all in good time.
    Kagame makes enemies, but I believe his stand(s) are justified.
    He is critical of the UN and its role in the 1994 genocide.
    He is critical of France for its role in the genocide.
    He is critical of the west for its lack of developmental aid and its seemingly endless exploitation. Kagame believes that Western countries keep African products out of the world marketplace. In contrast, he praises China. In a 2009 interview he said: "the Chinese bring what Africa needs: investment and money for governments and companies."
    Mr. Kakame (I think) would be the first to admid that the Rwandan situation is not perfect; there is still too much external interference, the external push to keep hostilities happening. He can name the country he holds most accountable; so can I. I bet you can too.
    Rawanda has the right man at the right time - a brilliant leader with a unique ability to unify and lead. Things are not perfect, but day-by-day, they are getting better.
    May Kakame have a long life & good health and bring prosperity to Rwandans - all Rwandans.

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  • 3. At 12:53pm on 09 Aug 2010, Fifiw wrote:

    President Kagame like any human is loved by some and not by others. What I seem to notice though, is that those who don't particularly like him are given way too much airtime while the preference shown by Rwandan citizens is down played. 95% of them for that matter. There is almost an unsaid assumption that the committment, loyalty and respect that Rwandans show their leader is out of ignorance with internation human rights bodies thinking that they are the "saviours" to enlighten Rwandans on democracy on their rights.

    However, the truth is that only Rwandans know what they had to go through and what they need to do so that what happened in the past NEVER happens again. When push came to shove, only Rwandans could save Rwanda so now that they are rebuilding, let us respect their decisions. Their decisions are not made out of fear but out of a knowledge of how much work they and their leaders have put into ensuring their safety stability unity and development which are still fragile.

    Rwandans see conflict in neighbouring countries mainly caused by selfish leaders with too much freedom of speech and no control over (what is difficult to define but is technically) hate speech. They know they could easily slip into such situations if they have selfish leaders.

    Rwandans are informed and the media should start showing more balanced view of the country. Let us give the people of Rwanda a chance for self actualization through the ballot process and respect their decisions. It is an informed decision.

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  • 4. At 6:21pm on 09 Aug 2010, Roberto Carlos Alvarez-Galloso wrote:

    As a Westerner, I am sick and tired of the criticisms leveled against Mr. Kagame. Where was the West when people in Rwanda were dying in a genocide? The West was no where to be found. At least China is helping in the recocnstruction efforts. The West should take care of reforming itself before judging others.

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  • 5. At 10:58pm on 09 Aug 2010, IsaroK wrote:

    I too am from the West and am tired of the criticisms of Kagame. I travel in and out of Rwanda often and feel very safe there - often safer then in the U.S.. That said there is no perfect country. As Roberto said where was the West in 1994 - they were sitting back doing nothing as Rwanda was left on its own. Why? Because Rwanda has nothing that the West sees as valuable other then people -NO OIL or DIAMONDS. Its people were not enough on there own to save.

    That said Kuddo's to Kagame and the work he has done over the last 16 years and his first term as president. Rwanda needs Kagame still - he is setting a stage that is stable and working towards reconciliation and peace.

    Those that are critical about the lack of democracy - could also look at the U.S. Democracy and how we have often screwed it up too. We don't have a perfect system either. Recounting votes over and over and the one that didn't win becomes the President. What about cities that vote to not have building built, but are built with private dollars against the vote. How is that democratic? Money is power and money Rules - everywhere.

    Congratulations to Kagame and the progress he has made so far - even with all the imperfections.
    Rwanda needs him for the next 7 years.

    Let us also note that todays election was uneventful and peaceful.

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  • 6. At 5:38pm on 10 Aug 2010, floraflora wrote:

    CONGRATULATIONS to H.E. Paul kagame, and to Rwandans on successful conclusion of elections. I truly believe Kagame has accomplished a lot within a short time, and will do much more in his second term. I however think it's too early for Rwandans to laugh at Kenyans. It's true that Kenya has quite a number of serious problems but it's also true that they are trying to address them and in an open manner. Both countries still have a long way to go in terms of full reconciliation. So we should stand with each other as we see the East African dream realised.

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  • 7. At 2:29pm on 11 Aug 2010, EddieJH wrote:

    Kagame is not without his failings, but I genuinely believe he is - and will hopefully be remembered as - one of Africa's great statesman. Its always dangerous (and unfair) to make comparisons, and whilst he clearly lacks the remarkable depth of character / personality / charisma of Mandela, one could argue his achievements are no less tangible? In a few, very few, short years he (and the Rwandan people) have absolutely transformed Rwanda post its complete and brutal self destruction. The facts spk for themselves.

    The West's criticism of Kagame is short-sighted and obtuse - the comparison with Singapore is understandable and helpful (I also like Rwanda's description as the "Switzerland of Africa"). As an Englishman, I find it patronising, and it lacks any comprehension of the dangers still facing this nation. If the West cannot understand, and cannot embrace Dr Kagame's Rwanda, then China will, and good luck to them.

    Rwanda is atmospheric (like no other country I have ever visited), it is safe, clean (seriously clean) friendly, law abiding, dynamic and beautiful. Its people are proud of their recent achievements and rightly so. Be proud Rwanda, be proud of Dr Kagame and continue on the path you have set yourselves.

    p.s. books won't tell you everything, but a read of Kinzer's "A Thousand Hills" and Romero Dallaire's "Shake Hands with the Devil", will certainly get you thinking......

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  • 8. At 06:26am on 12 Aug 2010, liberte wrote:

    Congratulations Banyarwanda for giving your vote and making this election a success. Congratulations strongman Paul Kagame - the posts above mirrors my personal views too: well done and lead on making tiny Rwanda an example for Africa.

    Andrew, thank you for a well written article: balanced, objective and with an insightful respect for Africa and your readers. Great journalism!

    Again I echo a lot of the opinions expressed in the posts above: it will take time to build up and even more to heal but the Banyarwanda are a beautiful people who are willing to work hard for this peaceful dream.

    Dare I say that - judged by his amazing achievements so far - Paul Kagame is an African leader par excellence (in my opinion one of a select group that includes Mwalimu [Julius Nyerere] and Felix Hophouet-Boigny. EddieJH I stand firm in my believe that Paul Kagame achieved more for Rwanda than Nelson Mandela did for South Africa.

    Long live responsible journalism! Long live us taking responsibility for ourselves!

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  • 9. At 08:14am on 12 Aug 2010, Charleshot40 wrote:

    Kagame rules as a dictator in a country where power lies in the hands of the Tutsis, a country where no political opposition is tolerated, while the majority Hutu have nothing. This is an exercise in folly. I do not want to be a naysayer, but, if the issues of Hutu discrimination are not addressed and continue to fester, it is only a question of time before Rwanda returns to crisis.
    The problem with Africans and writers like the journalist is they believe in the worship of individuals rather than the creation of a political system. To Liberte, let me borrow from Sen Lloyd Bentsen. "I know Nelson Mandela, I have followed Nelson Mandela for years, Mr. Paul Kagame, you are no Nelson Mandela".

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  • 10. At 00:20am on 13 Aug 2010, Andyginaus wrote:

    In the wave of euphoria surrounding Rwanda's recent political and economic successes as a nation, people seem to forget so quickly that this man was responsible for leading RPF forces on revenge killings, slaughtering tens of thousands of Hutus as his forces returned from exile. Any comparison to Nelson Mandela should easily be cast aside at this point.
    While his recent economic exploits have been commendable and the country is enjoying somewhat greater stability, the lack of a clear alternative at the recent election, the continued harassment of opposition forces and the constant presentation of domestic 'security threats' reveal a man hell bent on building a security state, retaining power, prestige and building a unique role for himself in the nation. A benevolent dictator is of great value to a country only insofar as they remain benevolent. If Kagame truly wants to serve his country he will know when to leave. But military men seldom leave their post so voluntarily.

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  • 11. At 04:10am on 13 Aug 2010, liberte wrote:

    Charleshot40: Hi. Yes, Paul Kagame is part of the minority race the Tutsi. And yes, he is the sole man in power. He has provided Rwanda a new constitution after a referendum which protects Rwandans (Banyarwanda - the people of Rwanda) and does not distunguish between race, but unifies all as nationals. How do you judge things are stacked against the Hutu when after a referendum and election the majority still choose the minority to guide? The Hutu have been ruled by the Tutsi since ancient times, sucessfully and generally in peace. The Hutu and Tutsi practically became one - the Banyarwanda - until the Belgians started their "divide and conquer" campaign. Furiously pushing race differences into another completely different realm of tribal division which became a class distinction in order to exploit the people and the land during colonisation. I am not one to place the blame on long buried's doorstep, but this is reality. Let the Banyarwande choose how they proceed to get THEIR country healed and we should stop handing out divisionary lines - have we not seen enough of spurred-on racial division leading to hatred yet?
    I also do not think the author idolises the individual at all in this article it is just an article about the man and his influence...how can the article be sensible if not talking about the subject? And if you want a political system ... look at what Paul Kagame created and then tell me he has faltered.
    As for quotes from United States politicians, well i would take that with a grain of salt....especially with the US seeing a potential investment opportunity fly out the window with Rwanda choosing different allies and closing that door on another potentially exploitive venture.
    By the way: the Senator you quote is he the same man that advocated nuclear attacks on North Korea a few years after WW2? The same man that used almost exactly the same phrase you quote on another politician...I do not recall who but it ended with you "...you are no Jack Kennedy..."?

    >Andyginaus: At some point we have to put the past behind us (pun intended) and work toward the future. Nelson Mandela is a great man, but what Paul Kagame achieved for a broken nation is more than what can be said for Nelson Mandela. Let us not forget that Nelson Mandela was sentenced to life imprisonment for sabotage (that could and did cost the lives of innocent civilians) and crimes similar to high treason and he admitted to all this. What he did against an oppresive regime, Paul Kagame did, only his was successful. When I compared the two before I was merely referring to his achievements for a country as a whole. I do beg to differ on your assessment of Paul Kagame...If you consider that the fist Tutsi massacres occurred in the late 1950's and ended with Paul Kagame's successful coup in mid 1994, you can hardly call his campaign of overthrowing an oppresive and violent rule as revenge. Sometimes, I guess, war is justified. And it takes an immensely strong man to stand up for the cause of a minority of violently oppressed. But an even stronger man to, once he realised that he can wipe all the "perpetrators" out, to practise restraint and forgiveness as Paul Kagame did since coming into power. He is for Rwanda not for the Tutsi (or any other race/tribe in his country). And his war was justified to bring a madness to sense. He stepped up to the mark when no-one else would...not even the almighty USA, UK, UN or the entire planet for that matter! Whilst everyone knew that hundreds of thousands of people are being massacred.
    The generalisation about military rulers and stepping down is fair based on history. Whether Paul Kagame is a classic we'll have to stick around for, he is definitely not past his use-by date and he has and still does the job extremely well. I also differ on him being a "hell bent" man - he does not appear that way to me. But in saying that sometimes they start losing their merbles as years tick by. And yes, in conclusion I agree, every man's obituary is punctuated by his last stance. I believe PK is and has been one of the greatest leaders in Africa, whether I will remain of this opinion is reserved for future tinkering.

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  • 12. At 3:56pm on 19 Aug 2010, Masha wrote:

    I genuinely believe and request that it is high time for some of the individuals to leave Rwandan and Rwandans alone. Do you once sit and remember that the country you are talking about was about to be wiped of the world map 16 years ago under your watch? Do you recall that this beautiful country Rwanda has more mass graves than gold and diamond mines? Do you people recall that children of Rwanda and women of this prosperous nation were screaming under your watch as if people were watching a horror movie played in Africa? it was not a movie it was a reality! we Rwandans want to overcome this reality and go for real life and dignity that we deserve; and we have to mold our future! We have said and please respect our word! By the way, why when it gets 95% as result of presidential election in France, people call it "a landslide victory" and when 93% of Rwandans say "Kagame Paul", it is called "a coronation and not election". When a minority candidate wins election in USA, you call it "Perfect democracy", when Kagame wins, he is called a violent oppressor from Tutsi minority; can people give Rwandans a brake? If at least all African leaders were tyrants like our President, there will be no cries on children faces, no screams, no hunger,no more corruption, no killings, nor the "Africa" that some westerners like to watch on their screen. The truth is that only Rwandans know what they had to go through and what they need to restore their dignity. We deserve more than what we have, we need to go further. our Airline is "Developments" our pilot is Kagame Paul and the destination is Vision 2020 with a refueling in 2017! God bless Rwanda

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