The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Rwanda just kidnapped its most famous activist. Will anyone speak out against the regime?

Paul Rusesabagina, the inspiration for the film “Hotel Rwanda,” poses with Angelina Jolie at the movie's premiere in Beverly Hills, Calif., in 2004. (Chris Pizzello/AP)

Jeffrey Smith is the founding director of Vanguard Africa, a nonprofit organization that supports pro-democracy initiatives in Africa.

Late last week, Paul Rusesabagina — whose life was documented in the award-winning film “Hotel Rwanda” — traveled to Dubai on personal business. Then he disappeared. He resurfaced on Monday in the country of his birth, Rwanda, wearing handcuffs and branded a murderer by state authorities.

A spokeswoman for Rusesabagina’s foundation claimed he was the victim of “extraordinary rendition” — kidnapping — by the Rwandan regime. The world-famous activist was paraded into a courtroom with cameras from state-run media conveniently documenting his every step. Government-friendly social media trolls exultantly declared the kangaroo proceedings to be “the best news of 2020.”

Rusesabagina, a 2005 Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient, has been charged with terrorism by the Rwandan Bureau of Investigations, the country’s main law enforcement agency, which works hand-in-hand with the office of President Paul Kagame. The country’s justice minister, scorning any pretense of professionalism or impartiality, preemptively accused Rusesabagina of “wreaking havoc on Rwandans.”

Until recently, the hotelier and businessman, who is renowned for helping to save potentially thousands of lives during the country’s horrific 1994 genocide, was viewed as a national treasure. He was indeed often lauded by Kagame himself, not to mention his government allies.

That all began to change in 2006 when Rusesabagina published his memoir, “An Ordinary Man,” primarily devoted to an account of his personal journey and his well-documented efforts to save lives during the carnage of the genocide, which overwhelmingly targeted the minority Tutsis. But the book also includes a paragraph that criticizes Kagame: “Rwanda is today a nation governed by and for the benefit of a small group of elite Tutsis.… Those few Hutus who have been elevated to high-ranking posts are usually empty suits without any real authority of their own. They are known locally as Hutus de service, or Hutus for hire.”

In the years since then, Kagame has remained firmly entrenched in power, often winning sham elections that would make the likes of Saddam Hussein and Kim Jong-Un blush. He routinely wins nearly 100 percent of the votes cast in national elections; his ruling party, the Rwandan Patriotic Front, acts as a rubber stamp for his increasingly authoritarian directives.

Yet Kagame has also been lionized by his fellow African statesmen and counts notable leaders and philanthropists as his friends, including former president Bill Clinton, billionaire Bill Gates and, more recently, talk-show host Ellen DeGeneres. The U.S. Agency for International Development and the World Bank continue to shower funds on Rwanda with few strings attached.

Kagame is often portrayed as an exacting technocrat “who gets things done,” or, somewhat more critically, as the “benevolent dictator” that Rwanda — and by extension, Africa — needs to achieve human development. The underlying assumption here, that tyranny is somehow acceptable or otherwise good for business, is woefully counterproductive.

Over the past 12 months, several of Kagame’s critics have died under exceedingly mysterious circumstances. They include members of Rwanda’s long-battered political opposition, whose bodies are sometimes found contemptuously dumped and mutilated. Rwandan Lives Matter, a website that tracks Rwandans killed by Kagame’s regime, estimates that nine people were killed in July alone. The hit list includes Charlotte Uwamahoro, a 25-year-old woman who was killed along with her 7-month-old baby.

Rusesabagina is not the only former Kagame ally to be arrested and jailed on seemingly trumped-up charges. In February of this year, gospel singer Kizito Mihigo — who played a role in penning Rwanda’s national anthem — was arrested for trying to “illegally” cross into neighboring Burundi. Like Rusesabagina, he was later accused by state authorities of supporting terror groups intent on overthrowing the Kagame regime. A short time later, Mihigo turned up dead in a Rwandan jail cell. The list of Kagame critics assassinated abroad is also growing at a concerning clip.

And Kagame has not restricted his attacks to his own compatriots. For years, his paramilitary forces have perpetrated havoc in neighboring Congo. A long-suppressed U.N. report, drafted by the agency’s High Commissioner for Human Rights, accuses these same forces of committing genocide there.

The ongoing efforts of the Kagame regime to play down its involvement explain its recent targeting of Congolese Nobel laureate Denis Mukwege, prompting a number of international organizations to demand his protection. The United Nations, too, has taken Kagame’s threats seriously enough to sound the alarm over Mukwege’s safety.

Dictators such as Kagame — and those who show a repeated disdain for human rights and the rule of law in practice — do not deserve the plaudits or the financial support that they often receive. It is bad ethics and it is equally bad politics. Dictators are toxic. Their ripple effects are not confined to national boundaries alone — they spread and often take root elsewhere. It is time for the United States and global allies to stop supporting and subsidizing this repression. If the silence and the hand-wringing persist, do not be shocked if someone like Mukwege is shackled next.

Read more:

Fred Muvunyi: Rwanda’s strongman finally says the right thing on free speech. Does he mean it?

The Post’s View: For the good of Rwanda, President Kagame should not run for a third term

Fred Muvunyi: Don’t be fooled by those happy campaign rallies. Rwandans live in fear.

Aditi Sriram: In Rwanda, a journalist opens his notebook to expose injustice