Saturday, August 8, 2009

Strategic Alliances: Rwanda’s President and his Western dream team

By Ayla Bonfiglio
Columbia Political Review
Vol. 8, Issue 1, p4
October 2008

The roads in Kigali are perfectly paved. The car rides are conspicuously smooth, and the taxi-motorcyclists wear green helmets and carry extras for passengers. In East Africa, this is not the norm.

During my conversations with university students in Rwanda’s capital city, one explanation emerged for these superficial signs of development: President Paul Kagame.

Western notables consider Kagame, appointed temporarily in 2000 and then elected in 2003 as the first Tutsi to hold the post, part of a new wave of African politicians bringing Western ideals of progress to their countries. For his part, President Kagame has built an advisory network of Western stars—including Bill Gates, Bill Clinton, Joe Ritchie, and Tony Blair—over the past few years, all toward moving the country into international prominence. This high-profile development strategy begs examination: Can we take Kagame’s tactics at face value? Did not Western leaders have similar relationships with Mobutu of Zaire when he first assumed power?

Based on my o b s e r v a t i o n s in Kigali and t h r o u g h o u t ne i ghb o r ing Uganda, there appear to be two distinct perspectives that one could take on Kagame’s policies. The first is that the president, genuinely devoted to a massive development overhaul of his country, is exploiting the international resources ripened by the post-genocide environment. Or, Kagame’s extensive network of influential Western leaders is meant to divert attention from demands that he stand trial for genocide crimes he may have committed as leader of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). Looking at these two stances with a critical eye, one needs to consider Kagame as an engineer of strategic events. The most recent was the president’s participation in the Compton Lecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in September 2007.

Dr. Susan Hockfield, MIT President, introduced him graciously as a man “working to transform Rwanda from a poor country trapped in subsistence farming to a thriving, modern, knowledge-based economy with trading partners around the world.” President Kagame spoke to a packed auditorium on the importance of information technology for the advancement of Rwandese society, then entreated his audience to become active in his country’s development. Moreover, he emphasized the potential of a relationship between his country and the university. In this way, he not only reached out to leaders in the science and technology community—as he has done with Google’s Larry Page, who provided the country with free web-based software—but also to individuals with the potential to become the next generation of leaders.

Stepping back to the February headline-maker that first drew my attention to Kagame’s strategic networking: former British Prime Minister Tony Blair voluntarily became advisor to the East African leader. At a press conference in Kigali, Mr.. Blair explained that his involvement with Rwanda is a result of the strides the country has made in “overcoming trauma” since the genocide, a statement that reveals his investment in Kagame’s narrative of progress. Mr. Blair has said that he in- tends to foster Rwandan development by using his international status to facilitate foreign aid and private investment.

To sustain the country’s economic advancement after gaining admittance to the East African Development Bank and launching a stock exchange last January, Kagame also receives counsel from acclaimed commodities and options trader Joe Ritchie and former president Bill Clinton. In the public health sector, President Kagame partners with Bill Gates and Harvard professor Paul Farmer, a leading specialist on public health in impoverished settings, to improve Rwandans’ healthcare access. The addition of Mr. Blair to the advising team is not extraordinary, but one action taken among many to engage Western leaders in strategic development. Thus it was no surprise when, during my visit to Kigali, President Bush told reporters that he considered President Kagame part of the “new generation of progressive African leaders, ”and later called him “a man of action” who can “get things done.”

One should consider Blair’s advisory role in light of Rwanda’s post-genocide development schemes and Kagame’s efforts to put Rwanda on the map with the Western world. Ugandan political writer Andrew Mwenda poses a particularly poignant question when he asks, “How can a small, poverty-stricken country somewhere in the middle of Africa, having no rich minerals and almost of no strategic value in global politics, attract the attention of such an international statesman as Blair?” Glancing at the news Rwanda made in the month of March, the answer seems clear: the president’s political and economic strategic positioning.

The question now becomes: How is President Kagame’s dense network of alliances improving the country? As Tony Blair observed about Rwanda’s development, “The vision is one thing and to make it happen is another.” The president receives advice and assistance in a variety of sectors, but are the Rwandese people benefiting? It is still too early to tell whether he is “walking the walk,” but I did encounter aspects of Rwandan “development” that throw doubt on the authenticity of his initiatives. For instance, though Kigali appears highly developed—more so than the neighboring capital, Kampala—the rest of Rwanda lags far behind the conditions of rural Uganda. The beautiful roads, fountains, green spaces, high prices, and flocks of muzungus—well-off white people—in the city may just be features of a highly localized development showpiece, while the rest of the state remains in need of assistance.

How does the disparity in developmental support between the capital city and almost everywhere else reflect on President Kagame’s true motivations? Aside from a genuine desire to develop Rwanda, should we seek alternative political explanations? From Rwandese university students and Ugandan businessmen in Rwanda, I heard much skepticism of his highly publicized attempts to put the country on the “developed map.” To this end, some hold that the president’s actions are attempts to focus Western attention away from his controversial tenure in the RPF.

A Rwandese friend explained to me that former General Kagame may well be guilty of “revenge killings” (or simply, “mass killings”). Moreover, there is controversy over whether he should be tried in court over claims that he ordered the assassination of former President Habyarimana in 1994. Kagame said in a 2004 BBC interview that he was willing to stand trial for this second accusation, but in 2007, he opposed the idea on the BBC program HARDtalk. For over a year, French judge Jean-Louis Bruguière has been compiling a 70-page dossier on Kagame to implicate him in the murder that is said to have triggered the genocide. When the file was mentioned in an interview, the president answered, “It is 70 pages of trash, of nothing, and I assure you that.” He has vehemently criticized the merits of the case and its sources because of France’s alleged involvement in the genocide. The date Bruguière’s allegations were first made public, the president cut diplomatic ties with France.

Lastly, the Rwandese president has been under fire for sending troops back to the Democratic Republic of Congo, after officially withdrawing them in 2002, to engage Rwandese Hutu militias. Kagame has not openly acknowledged his continued involvement in the Congo, but he has threatened to intervene before. When a 2002 interviewer asked how newly deployed troops might operate, he answered, “Maybe in a different way from what we did last time. We’ll be more specific, we’ll target certain areas and certain positions…and just get out.” In public comments, Kagame has described the militias as a danger to Rwanda. In the course of her field research, Barnard political science professor Severine Autesserre found that numerous UN officials, soldiers, and other individuals living and working in Rwanda do not see the Rwandese Hutu militias as a threat. She explains that the rumor of danger could be “a pretext for [various elements of the Rwandese elite] to remain in Congo,” to extract mineral resources and protect the Congolese of Rwandese descent.

The two perspectives on Rwanda’s strategic development contrast starkly. Leaders in the West either hail Kagame as an innovative force or as another dictator attempting to evade accountability. While the unbalanced development of Rwanda may suggest that President Kagame seeks to deceive, the evidence is far from concrete. Moreover, while his selection of famous Westerners as informal advisors do focus international attention on his development schemes, this is in no way conclusive about the president’s underlying motivations.

What is clear is that President Kagame’s development of Kigali is simply not enough. To prove the sincerity of his expressed intentions to the world and to his citizens, Kagame will have to craft a more balanced development scheme. He must convince the Rwandese people that the progress transforming the capital city will reach them in other parts of the country. Looking toward Rwanda’s future, author Stephen Kinzer says it best: “The course [Kagame and his supporters] have chosen is at least as full of risk as it is full of promise. Over the next few years, it will be one of the most closely watched experiments in Africa.”

Related Materials
Kagame’s Advisors Propel Economy

Rwanda: Economic Growth Sustained Through Free Labor


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