Paul Kagame, the controversial autocrat of Rwanda, is getting the rock-star treatment from Toronto’s cultural and business elite this week.
The Rwandan President, whose regime has been accused of human rights abuses and assassination plots, was feted at a glitzy Toronto film gala on Thursday night and again at a business breakfast at the exclusive National Club on Friday. He will speak at an NBA Africa luncheon on Saturday at the Art Gallery of Ontario as part of the NBA’s all-star game weekend.
Despite the allegations against him, Mr. Kagame continues to rub shoulders with Western politicians, celebrities, intellectuals and investors. From the snowy hills of Davos to the elite universities of the United States, he remains a sought-after speaker and guest, and one of Africa’s most celebrated leaders.
Mr. Kagame has dominated Rwanda for nearly 22 years, since the end of the genocide that killed more than 800,000 Rwandans. His popularity rests on his reputation as the leader of the opposition army that eventually pushed out the genocidaires, and as the orchestrator of widely praised economic reforms in his impoverished country.
But, behind the scenes, in Washington and Europe, there is growing disquiet over Mr. Kagame’s efforts to crush the opposition, eliminate the private media and extend his rule for years to come. And there is a widening disconnect between Mr. Kagame’s celebrity status abroad and his ruthless record at home.
Rwandan officials have not said whether Mr. Kagame’s visit is purely private or whether he will meet Canadian political leaders. There is a large Rwandan diaspora in Canada, including many who strongly support Mr. Kagame.
A spokesperson for Global Affairs Canada said the President’s visit is a private one. “The Government of Rwanda has not made any request for an official meeting,” the spokesperson said on Friday.
The Rwandan strongman’s highly visible presence at NBA all-star events in Toronto this weekend is partly a result of his friendship with Masai Ujiri, the Nigerian-born general manager of the Toronto Raptors who has created a network of African basketball camps, known as Giants of Africa. Last year, Mr. Kagame’s 19-year-old son, Ian, was one of the young athletes at a Giants of Africa camp in the Rwandan capital Kigali. The Raptors GM was later invited to dinner at the Kagame residence.
A documentary about the Giants of Africa camps was screened on Thursday night at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in downtown Toronto, headquarters of the Toronto International Film Festival, with Mr. Ujiri introducing Mr. Kagame to the crowd in attendance.
On Friday morning, Mr. Kagame spoke to about 80 members of the Young Presidents Organization, a group of business leaders, at the historic Bay Street quarters of Toronto’s private National Club.
His Toronto cultural and business functions are typical of Mr. Kagame’s busy touring schedule, in which he frequently hobnobs with world leaders, celebrities and high-profile academics.
In recent months, according to his Twitter feed and the official Rwandan state media, Mr. Kagame has spoken on panels at the World Economic Forum in Davos, met with billionaire adventurer Richard Branson, given a speech at the World Government Summit in Dubai, and delivered lectures at Wharton Business School in Pennsylvania and at Columbia University in New York, where he was introduced by famed scholar Jeffrey Sachs.
Yet, the U.S. government has been increasingly critical of Mr. Kagame’s efforts to consolidate power and eliminate opposition. When the Rwandan constitution was amended to allow him to stay in power until 2034, thereby giving him up to 40 years of rule, the U.S. State Department said it was “deeply disappointed.”
An investigation by The Globe and Mail in 2014 found evidence to support allegations that Mr. Kagame’s government was involved in planned attacks on exiled Rwandan dissidents in South Africa, Belgium and other countries.
Following those reports, a U.S. congressional subcommittee held hearings to review the allegations and its chairman called for a full investigation by an international inquiry. He revealed that the U.S. State Department had found the allegations to be credible.
Most recently, the State Department has raised concerns that Mr. Kagame’s government is interfering in neighbouring Burundi by allowing Burundian refugees in Rwanda to be recruited to fight for the Burundian opposition.
The State Department cited reports that Rwanda was involved in “destabilizing activities” in Burundi. And a confidential United Nations report said the Kagame government was secretly giving months of military training to Burundian rebels, including training in the use of grenades and anti-tank mines, with the goal of overthrowing Burundi’s president.Report Typo/Error