Amid Rwanda's successes, election raises concerns about suppression of rights
KIGALI, RWANDA -- Ever since Paul Kagame rose to power after the 1994 Rwandan genocide that killed 800,000 people, the United States and its allies have embraced him as one of Africa's greatest hopes.
Each year, they give hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to this East African nation famous for its lush green hills and mountain gorillas.
But a growing chorus of critics charges that Kagame is transforming into the continent's latest strongman, suppressing political opponents, independent media and human rights to deepen his grip on power. On Monday, the 52-year-old leader is widely expected to win by a landslide in Rwanda's presidential election, which has been marred by killings, a lack of credible political opponents and censorship.
"American and British taxpayers are sponsoring an authoritative regime, a dictatorship that has oppressed its own people," said Paul Rusesabagina, the former hotel manager credited with saving hundreds of ethnic Tutsis and Hutus in 1994, as depicted in the movie "Hotel Rwanda." "There is no need for elections. We already know the winners."
Kagame, tall and bespectacled, has denied using repression to remain in power. His close associates say actions taken against political rivals and the media have been justified and in adherence with Rwanda's laws. Kagame's critics, they say, have overblown what is happening and are obscuring Rwanda's considerable successes.
In recent months, though, even Kagame's staunchest ally, the United States, has expressed discomfort. In May, Assistant Secretary of State for Africa Johnnie Carson told a congressional subcommittee that the run-up to the election had been "riddled by a series of worrying actions."
Those actions, Carson said, included the suspension of two newspapers, the arrest of an opposition leader, the expulsion of a human rights researcher and the barring of two opposition parties from taking part in the election.
Human rights activists welcomed Carson's statements but said they did little to change attitudes in Rwanda. The United States and other Western powers, they said, are still reluctant to take tougher actions, such as slashing aid or strongly criticizing Kagame's government.
"A big reason for this is the international guilt for not being able to stop the genocide. That guilt has shaped Western policies towards Rwanda since the end of the genocide," said Carina Tertsakian, the Human Rights Watch researcher who was expelled from the country in April. "As a result, the Rwandan government believes it can get away with what it is doing."
Rwandan officials have dismissed Carson's statements. Others viewed Carson's comments as meant to please international human rights groups and Rwanda's critics in the United States, which gave $184 million in aid to Rwanda this fiscal year.
"I don't think these American officials are that concerned with Rwanda," said Charles Murigande, Rwanda's minister of education. "They know Rwanda is a country that is functioning very well, a country that is stable . . . that is using any of their assistance in an accountable and transparent manner."
Even Rwanda's harshest critics concede that the country has thrived economically in the 16 years since Kagame led his Tutsi-dominated Rwandan Patriotic Front guerrilla army to end the genocide.