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Jul-25-2012 17:47printcomments

The End of the West's Humiliating Affair with Paul Kagame

It piles the pressure on Britain to make a similar admission that its long-time darling, revered as a success story that underpins an entire ideology around donor development aid, could have feet of clay.

At the rate things are going, Kagame might have to trade his fancy threads for some with orange and white stripes. photo of the Rwandan President by Jennifer Fierberg

(LONDON The Guardian) - The US has belatedly woken up to the warts-and-all reality of the Rwandan president. When will Britain acknowledge that its development darling may have feet of clay?

A "visionary leader," said Tony Blair; "one of the greatest leaders of our time," echoed Bill Clinton. Such hero worship is usually reserved for South Africa's Nelson Mandela. But Blair and Clinton were describing the president of Rwanda, Paul Kagame.

The UK and US have staked their pride, reputations and ability to judge character, not to mention hundreds of millions of pounds in aid, on Kagame's powers of post-genocide healing and reconciliation matching those of Mandela after apartheid.

That is why the US decision to cut aid, and now to warn Kagame that he could even face criminal prosecution over meddling in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo, is a humiliating but long overdue reversal.

It piles the pressure on Britain to make a similar admission that its long-time darling, revered as a success story that underpins an entire ideology around donor development aid, could have feet of clay.

There are two main reasons why Kagame's Rwanda has been bulletproof for so long. One is western guilt over doing nothing to stop the 1994 genocide, in which 800,000 people perished. Clinton, whose most recent visit was last week, has described it as "my personal failure".

The UK, US and others rushed to embrace the east African state's new leadership and support the rebuilding of the country: Rwanda was a special case, and would be given more leeway than most. The aid taps were turned on and the money flowed, with tangible results: great gains in education and health and in the reduction of crime and poverty.

Secondly, then, Rwanda has come to symbolise what donor aid can do. It has been a trump card for the defence of the Department for International Development (DfID) when the Treasury attempts to turn the screws.

Britain is the country's biggest bilateral donor, with an average of £83m a year.

"When Clare Short was secretary of state, she was Kagame's number-one fan," says Carina Tertsakian, Human Rights Watch's senior researcher on Rwanda. "In her eyes, he could do no wrong. We're still living with the legacy of that now. Tony Blair was also taken in."

Blair was, and remains, one of Kagame's most ardent cheerleaders, and an unpaid adviser. His charity, the Africa Governance Initiative, places young interns in Rwandan government offices. Eighteen months ago, he told the Guardian: "I'm a believer in, and a supporter of, Paul Kagame. I don't ignore all those criticisms, having said that. But I do think you've got to recognise that Rwanda is an immensely special case because of the genocide.

"Secondly, you can't argue with the fact that Rwanda has gone on a remarkable path of development. Every time I visit Kigali and the surrounding areas, you can just see the changes being made in the country."

David Cameron appears almost equally enamoured, and the current development secretary, Andrew Mitchell, visited Rwanda only last week. He said he had delivered "frank messages" to both Rwanda and Congo about the current instability and violence.

Diplomatic language apart, however, Britain has been painfully silent about Rwanda's pernicious influence in its war-torn neighbour. The recent UN group of experts' report named names in the Rwandan government and military who are in contact with Congolese rebels, feeding from the trough of its mineral resources and supplying weapons and uniforms.

Yet Kagame categorically denies it , and Britain apparently believes him, or can't bear to disbelieve, lest it suffer buyer's remorse.

"Kagame was here last week and told a barefaced lie to David Cameron and other British officials," says one UK-based analyst. "He denied Rwandan meddling in Congo even though the evidence is overwhelming."

Britain and others have turned a similarly blind eye to Rwanda's domestic affairs. The state has been accused of murder and intimidation; political opponents and journalists have been jailed.

In 2008, the Economist said of Kagame: "Although he vigorously pursues his admirers in western democracies, he allows less political space and press freedom at home than Robert Mugabe does in Zimbabwe."

The warts-and-all reality has been dawning on the US for some time. In 2010 it sounded warnings that "the political environment ahead of the election has been riddled by a series of worrying actions taken by the government of Rwanda, which appear to be attempts to restrict the freedom of expression". Kagame was re-elected with 93% of the vote.

None of this fits the development darling narrative, however. Instead, it is much less unpleasant for visiting diplomatics to admire the transformation of the capital, Kigali, with its safety, orderliness and cleanliness (there is a ban on plastic bags).

Rwanda has a flourishing economy and well-oiled PR machine, and the affable Kagame uses that most democratic of media, Twitter.

In decades past, the west has been criticised for applying selective vision to the sins of leaders such as Mugabe and Idi Amin until late in the day. America, it seems, is reluctantly removing the scales from its eyes regarding Paul Kagame. For Washington it may merely represent the end of a beautiful friendship; for London, it will feel more like a broken heart.




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Arthur T July 25, 2012 10:37 pm (Pacific time)

Kagame transforming Rwanda is an deniable fact.The US can do/say what it sees fit but that's what the Americans have always done.If you have visited Kigali you will agree with all the leaders who give praise to Kagame.Even you if you could start to write good things about Kagame am sure the list will be endless.The US is making a mistake.

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Sean Flynn was a photojournalist in Vietnam, taken captive in 1970 in Cambodia and never seen again.