Twenty years ago, Rwanda was engulfed in chaos: its leaders assassinated, its peoples at war, its neighbours killing each other, and the country plunging into a 100-day genocide as the world turned its back.
Today Rwanda is perhaps the most stable and orderly country in Africa. Its army is among the most professional and disciplined on the continent, its health and education systems are impressive, and its government is widely praised for its economic reforms, anti-corruption measures, and environmental protections. Its capital, Kigali, is the arguably the cleanest and safest city in Africa.
But as Rwanda marks the 20th anniversary of the genocide that killed 800,000 people, an odd thing has happened. The near-universal praise is beginning to fade, and Rwandan President Paul Kagame is facing a rising wave of criticism from Western political leaders and scholars, sparked by the growing evidence of his domestic repression and pugnacious foreign policies.
The top leaders of France and South Africa are boycotting the genocide anniversary events in Kigali on Monday, in the wake of diplomatic tensions and alleged assassination attempts by Rwandan agents against dissidents and opposition leaders.
The United States has sharply criticized the Rwandan government in the past few months, urging it to tolerate peaceful opposition and not to “silence dissidents.” It expressed “deep concern” over Mr. Kagame’s public threats against foreign-based opposition figures, and it said it was troubled by what appeared to be “politically motivated attacks” against prominent Rwandan exiles.
One influential U.S. Congressman, Ed Royce, is calling for cuts to U.S. security aid to Rwanda because of the alleged murder attempts. “The narrative coming out of the (Rwandan) presidential palace would implicitly suggest to Rwandan intelligence officers around the world that they have a blanket okay to conduct these kinds of operations,” said Mr. Royce, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, in an interview with Foreign Policy magazine this month.
South Africa, for its part, has been outraged by a series of attacks on Rwandan dissidents on its territory. Last month it expelled four Rwandan diplomats, accusing them of involvement in the murder and attempted murder of Rwandan refugees in South Africa. (Rwanda retaliated by expelling six South African diplomats.)
With its economic liberalism, its pursuit of foreign investment and its strong support for information technology, Rwanda is sometimes called the “Singapore of Africa.” But it has also been described as the “Israel of Africa” – a country that rose from the ashes of a holocaust to become militarily the strongest in its region, often in conflict with its neighbours and unafraid to pursue its enemies abroad.
Rwanda’s long-standing support for rebel forces in eastern Congo had been tolerated by Western governments for many years, but in the past two years it has been criticized for its unofficial alliance with the M23 rebel movement, which captured Goma, the biggest city in eastern Congo, in 2012.
A report by United Nations experts in 2012 found strong evidence that Rwanda was providing financial and military aid to the M23 rebels, and both the United States and Britain suspended some of their aid to Rwanda as a result.
Mr. Kagame and his ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), which have been in power since the end of the 1994 genocide, have long been shielded from criticism by strong support from powerful U.S. and British politicians such as former president George W. Bush and former prime minister Tony Blair.
But the RPF has also benefited from a sophisticated and expensive network of lobbying firms and public-relations consultants. Their primary duty was “to drown out the voices of foreign critics and bury evidence of the RPF’s human rights abuses under rosy language about political stability, economic growth and the stated intention of helping the poor,” said a recent analysis by Susan Thomson, a Canadian scholar who studies Rwanda.
She describes it as a deliberate “disinformation” campaign that uses the 1994 genocide as a replacement for authoritarianism in narratives about Rwanda. But the façade has begun to crack, she said, following revelations last month of fake Twitter accounts operated from Mr. Kagame’s office.
Another scholar, Omar McDoom of the London School of Economics, says Mr. Kagame and the RPF seem to exercise power in a manner similar to their predecessors before 1994. “Politically, there is some troubling continuity with pregenocide Rwanda,” he wrote in an article published by the Royal African Society in London.
“Power remains concentrated in the hands of a small, powerful ethnic elite led by a charismatic individual with authoritarian tendencies.”