The danger of an unchallenged myth: The lie that is Rwandan President Paul Kagame
When I set about writing this, two poignant quotes kept bouncing around in my head, which describe everything I want to express in this column. The first, by Martin Luther King goes thus: “Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.” The second quote, from a speech by US President John F. Kennedy at Yale University goes thus: “For the great enemy of truth is very often not the lie — deliberate, contrived and dishonest — but the myth — persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic.”
These two quotes perfectly sum up my views on the sudden appearance of Paul Kagame as a kite being flown within Nigerian political and policy circles. Regardless of who is behind the sudden emergence of an East African strongman as a purported example for Nigerian or African leadership, it is very important to question and challenge this dangerous narrative before it takes root and begins to infect national decision making, as is so often the case. The case for Kagame-style leadership as a panacea to African development issues hinges on two major beliefs: that Kagame is a “benevolent dictator” who leads with his country’s interests in mind, and that he is a “competent dictator” who knows how to get things done and achieve results.
Let us briefly interrogate these two notions.
The ‘benevolent dictator’ is fictional
What is most commonly used to sell the myth of Paul Kagame is the idea that he is some sort of patriotic strongman – the father of the modern Rwandan nation who came in like a hero at the country’s darkest hour to steer it away from genocidal division toward the cusp of a 21st century economic breakout. His “example” is typically cited by non-Rwandan Africans as a stark contrast to their incompetent and corrupt (elected) governments. “If only Kagame’s peers across Africa could be like him! Africa would be so developed by now!”
This myth conveniently ignores some very inconvenient facts that tell a completely different story about who Kagame is and what the modern state of Rwanda is actually built on. First of all, Kagame’s portrayal as a hero in the context of the events of 1994 could not be wider of the mark. It often comes as a shock to many who discover upon some cursory reading, that there was a second genocide happening almost concurrently in Rwanda as well as in neighbouring Burundi and Eastern DRC in 1994. This genocide, which was characterised by massacres and rapes of hundreds of thousands of Hutu civilians and refugees between 1990 and 1996, was twice recognised the UN in 1997 and 1998 as a genocide under Article 2 of the 1948 Genocide Convention.
Paul Kagame’s Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), and later on his Rwandan-backed Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire (AFDL), were repeatedly implicated in these sordid events, but the sheer ferocity of the 1994 Tutsi genocide perhaps allowed him to fly under the radar as the lesser of two evils. By invoking the memory of April 1994 at every opportunity, Kagame has successfully convinced the world to forget that he was in fact, a tribal warlord fighting an illegitimate war against an elected government, before a series of “convenient” events led him into power in Kigali.
What Kagame really is more than anything else, is an opportunist – the ruthless winner who got to write history and cynically exploit the world’s emotions by presenting a complicated – and by no means concluded – conflict as a 3-month spurt of madness that he heroically ended. Rather than contextualise the Rwandan genocide as part of a wider African Great Lakes regional crisis, and acknowledge the ongoing role of the Kagame regime in destabilising and plundering the Eastern DRC, Africa and the world have falled for his contrived and carefully cultivated leadership myth, allowing him to repeatedly escape difficult questions.
Difficult questions like: “Why do Rwandan opposition members keep going missing?” “How did he get 99 percent of the votes cast in the 2017 Rwandan election?” “Why is Diane Rwigara in prison?” “Why does his government regularly seize, expropriate and auction homes, property and businesses belonging to government critics?” “How come Rwanda has barely any coltan deposits, but is one of the world’s largest coltan exporters, while coincidentally sharing a border with the Eastern DRC which has extensive coltan deposits and an everlasting civil war fueled by armed groups linked to Kigali?” “How many civilian massacres and mass rapes did the RPF under his leadership carry out between 1990 and 1996?” “Why did he respond to a 2006 report by French magistrate Jean-Louis Bruguière, linking him to the assassination of former Rwandan president Juvenal Habyarimana by breaking off Rwanda’s diplomatic relationship with France?”
In an alternate universe, Paul Kagame would be answering questions about RPF war crimes and his role in the events of 1994 at the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) in Arusha, Tanzania. Instead, because of the power of the “benevolent dictator” myth, this charming, narcissistic Mobutu Sese Seko regen with a nice smile and good PR is currently the toast of many within Africa’s ironically-termed intelligentsia.
The ‘competent dictator’ is another myth
When Customs Controller General, Col. Hamid Ali recently made a comment comparing Nigeria’s nonsensical border closure to China’s alleged border closure in the 20th century, it was a sign that Nigeria’s government has moved on from selling myths and inaccurate information to Nigerians, and started formulating real policies with long term consequences based on false information. Why this worried me was that it presented the possibility of a scenario where the Kagame myth will be used as a basis for policy and political moves that will destroy our hard-won democratic freedoms and wreck our economy for nothing.
If an MDA head and his boss in Aso Rock are making policy decisions based on Chinese ‘historical events’ that simply did not happen, they can also make decisions based on a Rwandan success story that is entirely fictional. As of today, for example, Rwanda has roughly one doctor per 15,600 people. To put that in perspective, Nigeria has roughly one doctor per 2,500 people, and it is widely accepted that this figure represents a healthcare emergency. Rwanda’s per capita GDP is also a miserable $850, putting it behind Chad and war-torn Yemen, and just ahead of economic powerhouses like Haiti, Afghanistan and South Sudan. In 25 years since seizing power, Paul Kagame’s regime has managed to pave just 1,000km of the country’s 12,000km of roads – about 8.3 percent of the total road network.
Even in the famously clean and shiny capital city Kigali, only the most important roads are paved, with the majority of streets still brown earthroads. Most tellingly, anything from 30 to 50 percent of Rwanda’s national budget is still funded by foreign aid every year, more than a quarter of a century after Paul Kagame seized power. Behind the shiny, clean streets of Kigali and the PR-savviness of Kagame’s regime, complete with poverty statistics manipulated to look good as discovered recently by the Financial Times, Rwanda remains a dirt poor banana republic populated by impoverished and terrified people.
If there is such a thing as a “competent dictatorship,” Rwanda is not it, and I cannot stress this point enough. The economically illiterate decision to self harm by closing the borders without sorting out any of the underlying issues that make imported goods more competitive, is an example of ruinous national decision decision-making based on myths like “the Chinese closed their borders.”
Hopefully, we won’t have to learn the hard way that the myth of Paul Kagame – no matter how much we want to believe in it – is just a myth.