Emboldening Paul Kagame - rolling the red carpet and giving a dictator the green light

Today marks the end of a controversial two-day State visit by Rwandan dictator, Paul Kagame. A State visit is the ultimate weapon of diplomacy.

State visits are not merely ceremonial, but are politically inspired and purposeful to increasing Botswana’s diplomatic influence, business links and furthering national interests. But this visit is bound to have an opposite effect, backfire and cause lasting damage to Gaborone’s democratic credentials.

State media reported that, ‘Kagame’s visit marked a pinnacle moment in the relations between Botswana and Rwanda’ and ‘will afford the two leaders an invaluable opportunity to exchange views on bilateral; regional and international issues of mutual interest’. A sentence that reads, ‘the visit will therefore serve to enhance and broaden the scope of bilateral cooperation between Botswana and Rwanda is various sectors of human development’ shows just how out of touch the state media is with international opinion.

Paul Kagame is a despot.

There are those who praise his supposed accomplishments. Rwanda’s economic boom is visible in the capital Kigali, one of the safest and cleanest cities on the continent. Former US President George W. Bush called the oppressor ‘a man of action’ who embraced private capital in developing the Rwandan economy with former British Prime Minister Tony Blair labelling the tyrant a ‘visionary leader’.

Amidst the international praise are numbers that seem to favour Kagame’s approach. Rwanda’s economy has averaged seven percent growth every year since 2000. Rwanda is the second easiest place to do business in Africa after Mauritius and ahead of Kenya, South Africa and Botswana. Poverty is in decline and perceived corruption is the lowest compared to other African countries.

A quarter of a century after Rwanda’s brutal genocide, Kagame remains a constant figure atop the country’s politics. Critics accuse the autocrat of personalising the state apparatus, the army and security organs for personal aggrandisement. He has entrenched himself in a reign of terror and excessive fear among Rwandans. Kagame has excessive private control over the country’s financial system and wealth.

Human rights activists say a system of oppression is behind the façade of cleanliness and order. The realm of politics is dominated by intimidation. Rwanda is an authoritarian state. The media is stifled. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch accuse Kagame of gross human rights violations and silencing his critics. Members of opposition parties are harassed and occasionally murdered they say. Senior defectors from the regime typically flee abroad, where they are still not safe.

Parliament that boasts 60% women is little more than a compliant donor-enticing tool and rubber-stamp. In the 2003 and 2010 elections, Kagame got 95% and 93% majority respectively. When he stood in 2010 he said it would be his last term. A December 2015 referendum pushed by Kagame’s ruling Rwanda Patriotic Front saw 98% of voters enable a constitutional change allowing Kagame to run for a seven year term in the 2017 elections with two additional five-year terms to follow. Kagame could stay in office until 2034 when he will be 78-years-old.

In December 2018, three judges acquitted Kagame’s critic Diane Rwigara jailed in 2017 and barred from contesting the 2017 elections. Rwanda’s electoral commission alleged that Rwigara only submitted 572 valid signatures, short of the 600 required for her candidacy. She was also accused of forging signatures with some names allegedly being those of the dead. Rwigara denied the allegations.

Former intelligence chief, Patrick Karegeya was strangled in a hotel room in South Africa in 2014. In April 2018, written testimony submitted by the Hawks investigating officer Kwena Motlhamme as part of an inquest into the murder of Karegeya and several attacks on exiled army chief of staff General Kayumba Nyamwasa saw a South African Magistrate rule that the suspects in the murder of Karegeya and attacks were linked to the Rwandan government. Relations between South Africa and Rwanda were put under pressure as a result.

In 1998 former interior minister Seth Sendashonga was shot dead in Kenya after a failed assassination attempt of 1996. Kigali has always denied having anything to do with the murders of exiles and attempts on lives of others while simultaneously branding their former office bearers as treasonous terrorists.

Responding to the death of Karegeya, Kagame said, ‘treason brings consequences. Whoever harms Rwanda cannot safely escape’. Kagame further added that, ‘anyone who betrays Rwanda’s cause will fall victim’. On March 9, 2019 Kagame shocked many when national television beamed the totalitarian saying, ‘Sendashonga died because he had crossed the line. I have very little to say about that, but I am also not apologetic about it’.

For some Rwandans, Kagame is credited with restoring peace and steering the country to rapid economic growth in recent years. However, activists say all that has come at the expense of civil liberties and media freedoms. Kagame’s excesses have been neglected by the international community, perhaps owing to biased remorse for turning a blind eye to the genocide of 1994.

If there is any doubt left regarding who Paul Kagame is, there you go! Rwandans are terrified of Kagame – a recipe neither for happiness nor for durable peace.

But what does the Africa’s oldest democracy and the world’s leading single party in multiparty democracy hope to glean from a repressive totalitarian apparatus that controls almost all aspects of national life?

When many nations seemed to favour one party states, Botswana adopted multiparty democracy. Positive developmental milestones in multiparty dispensations are a proven success in Botswana. Developed countries with strong institutions like the United Kingdom and United States lead the charge with models embracing an abundance of liberties.

Naivety will celebrate Rwanda, just as it will celebrate China, yet another country Botswana fraternises with lately. The Rwandan growth ‘miracle’ is less impressive than it seems. Generous foreign aid from sympathetic and guilt ridden donors turned negative growth into the ‘economic miracles’. Rwanda’s cost of development is minimal compared to countries with a large geographic spread. To deliver a comparable level of development in Botswana requires tenfold expenditure.

Rwanda is fragile as power is concentrated in the hands of one man and one party. One day Kagame too will have an encounter with his maker, leaving his only legacy of robustness being the RPF. Corruption might be in check but cronyism is rampant. The investment arm of the RPF has stakes in most of the biggest companies in Rwanda and dominates the economy. Having the ruling party, rather than the state, exert such control is worrying. It is an invitation to rent-seeking. And it virtually guarantees that no other party can compete with the RPF.

Kagame has virtually stamped out all opposition in Rwanda. There is no room for dissent.

Why did Gaborone roll the red carpet for the architect of an authoritarian regime? What sectors of human development was Mass Media referring to? This state visit will embolden Kagame, giving him legitimacy and rubber stamping repressive policies of a despot. Government’s broad-minded foreign policy masterminds toast presidents for life such as Kagame and Xi Jinping as Botswana’s new friends. This will not work out well, or will it?

Gaborone should not be a green light that legitimises human atrocities by tyrannies!

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