Tale of another African hero turned villain

Meet Paul Kagame, President of the Republic of Rwanda.

Rwanda, which lies few degrees south of the equator, is the world’s 149th largest country. Landlocked and located in Central/Eastern Africa, the country is bordered by Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

For all intents and purposes, Kagame is yet another favourite son of Africa who has fallen by the wayside, thanks to power – absolute power that is.

Kagame rose to power on the back of one of modern African history’s worst and most memorable disaster, the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

In 1990 a civil war broke between the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RFP) and the government of then president Juvénal Habyarimana. Even though there was a ceasefire in 1992, this ended in April 1994 when Habyarimana’s plane was shot down, killing him.

Within a few hours of the shooting down of that incident, the genocide began. Over a period of just about 100 days, between 500,000 and a million Tutsi people were mowed down by the ruling Hutu tribe, of which the government ranks were made up.

The international world, under the leadership of the United Nations, then led by Africa’s own Kofi Annan, is remembered for having stood by and watched as brother killed brother in the bloody war that not only destroyed Rwanda, but left families broken apart and millions fleeing their own homes into neighbouring countries.

The Hollywood movie Hotel Rwanda captures this sad chapter very well.

By mid-July in 1994, the RFP – under the command of Kagame – had regrouped, fought back and taken control of the country. In a reversal of roles, millions of Hutus fled their country to neighbouring countries, as the victorious Tutsis made their way back home.

At this time, the scrawny, lanky and bespectacled Kagame had been appointed vice president and minister of defence under new president Pasteur Bizumungu.

For the first six years of RFP’s rule, retributive killings against Hutus took place, but it could not be proved whether these were sanctioned by government or even instigated by Kagame’s army.

In 2000, while the country was battling with burying its ugly and painful past, Bizumungu resigned and Kagame took over from him. This did not come as a surprise as Bizumungu was always viewed as a ceremonial leader, while Kagame, with all his military might, was the real force behind the throne.

Realising that revenge and retribution was not working, at the turn of the 21st century, government then introduced Gacaca, a village court system based on traditional Rwandan justice.

Although the Gacaca process, which allowed for faster processing of cases, lacked many safeguards and principles of international criminal law, it was hailed as a more humane and civil resolution of the impasse.

The Gacaca would be hailed as Rwanda’s own version of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was instituted in South Africa by former president Nelson Mandela shortly after assuming office as the first black president.

For this, Kagame would win praise and adoration from the modern world for rising above the politics of revenge, but choosing reconciliation and healing, which would lead to the country focusing on rebuilding and reconstruction after nearly 40 per cent of its people died during the genocide.

By now Kagame was the darling of Africa and the world. He was seen as a modern leader who would lift his country from the morass of poverty and destruction to the next level. And for the next decade or so, this seemed the case.

Between 2006 and 2011 the poverty rate reduced from 57 per cent to 45 per cent, and child mortality rates dropped from 180 per 1000 live births in 2000 to 111 per 1000 in 2009.

A draft constitution was released in 2003 and was overwhelmingly accepted, with 93 per cent of the voters in favour. The constitution provided for a two-house parliament, an elected president serving seven-year terms, and multi-party politics. The constitution also sought to prevent Hutu or Tutsi hegemony over political power. Article 54 states that “political organizations are prohibited from basing themselves on race, ethnic group, tribe, clan, region, sex, religion or any other division which may give rise to discrimination”.

No doubt, Rwanda had put the past behind. But had it?

On the contrary. Kagame used the constitution to create a one-party state because Article 54 made it difficult for any adversaries to organise themselves against him because any other party was likely to fall foul of the constitutions.

From then it has been downhill. Once the darling of the continent and a rising world politician, Kagame forced many into exile, hounded and imprisoned many opponents, curtailed media freedom and ruled by decree.

In recent times, Rwanda has been accused of hunting, hounding and even killing opponents who have fled into other countries, including South Africa. Kagame has never denied such accusations, only opting to repeat that Rwanda would always defend her sovereignty.

Under Kagame, Rwanda remains a contradiction in terms. It is hailed as one of fastest growing economies in Africa, a country where it is relatively easy to do business and where international tourism is on the rise.

Yet Rwanda is no doubt a clear one-man country under the benevolent dictatorship of Kagame who was re-elected in 2010 for another seven-year term.