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What legacy will Rwanda’s Paul Kagame leave?

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Newsweek front page of the Rwanda atrocities. Alfredo Jaar: The Rwanda Project, a captivating and critical exhibition that turns attention to the Rwandan genocide of 1994. Alfredo Jaar is a Chilean-born and New York based artist. The exhibition includes a selection of work from Jaar’s six-year project that honours the more than 800,000 victims of the mass slaughter in the African country between April and July 1994.  – Picture Courtney Africa / African News Agency (ANA)

By Kim Heller

Thirty years ago, the world watched on as Rwanda was ripped apart by genocide. In a 100-day spell of violence, an estimated 800,000 people from the minority Tutsi ethnic group were butchered by armed Hutu militias.

Moderate Hutus and members of the small Twa community did not escape the killing spree and were to become part of the genocidal carnage. It is estimated that over 1 million lives were lost in what can be described as some of the darkest days of post-independent Africa.

Rwanda President Paul Kagame speaks during a press conference at the Kigali Conference Centre in Kigali on April 8, 2024. Kagame thanked the people of Rwanda for doing the impossible by carrying the burden of reconciliation on their shoulders, the writer says. Picture: Guillem Sartorio / AFP

No-one came to the rescue of the Tutsis in Rwanda. Not Africa. Not the international community. No-one! If Rwanda had been a richer, more geo-politically significant territory, response may well have been different. In a video message ahead of this week’s 30th year commemoration of the genocide, France’s President, Emmanuel Macron, said that France and its western and African allies “could have stopped” Rwanda’s 1994 genocide but did not have the will to halt the slaughter.

Peacekeepers, rather than providing support and sanctuary, left in numbers as the country was turned into a killing field. Twenty years after the mass murders, the former Secretary General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, spoke of the shame of the organisation for failing to prevent the genocide and protect the people of Rwanda.

In the end, it was Paul Kagame’s Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) which brought an end to the genocide. At his address at the 30-year commemoration on Sunday 7 April 2024, the President of Rwanda, Paul Kagame, thanked the people of Rwanda for doing the impossible by carrying the burden of reconciliation on their shoulders.

President Kagame said, “We have turned the corner in Rwanda, but the same ideology that justified the genocide against the Tutsi is still alive and well in our region. And we see the same indifference from the wider world as in 1994. It is as if those expensive lessons are always lost, and we stare blindly as the same type of situation builds up again and again.”

A handful of world leaders, including the former President of the United States, Bill Clinton, and France’s Finance Minister, Stéphane Séjourné, attended the commemoration in Rwanda. In his autobiography, former President, Bill Clinton, wrote that the failure to try to stop Rwanda’s tragedies was to become one of the greatest regrets of his presidency. The presence of Israeli President, Isaac Herzog, at the commemoration, raised a stir given the current genocidal acts of Israel against the people of Palestine.

In Rwanda, the land of a thousand hills, Paul Kagame, has moved mountains in terms of bringing about reconciliation. It is on the wing of national unity and reconciliation that Kagame has moved Rwanda from rupture to recovery. The government has invested heavily in internal peace and reconciliatory efforts. There is a government ministry focussing on reconciliation, and a school syllabus that teaches young Rwandans about the genocide against the Tutsis.

It is not only on the reconciliation front that President Kagame has done well. In terms of economic development, Rwanda has enjoyed strong and consistent GDP growth. The World Bank projects an average growth of 7.2 percent over the 2024–2026 period. Investment in infrastructure, farming, and tourism has paid dividends for the nation, and its people. The percentage of Rwandans living in poverty has reduced significantly and life expectancy has doubled. A universal healthcare programme is in place and gender parity in play with women making up over sixty percent of the Rwandan parliament.

Unfortunately, ongoing spates of human rights abuses, and alleged involvement in fuelling regional conflict may sully the Kagame legacy. The suppression and arrest of those who dare to speak out against Kagame or the ruling RPF will forever scar the developmental achievements of his administration. Additionally, Kagame, the very same leader who is widely applauded for achieving stability and security to Rwanda is also alleged to be causing regional instability.

The UN and US have both accused Rwanda of supporting the Tutsi led M23 movement in Eastern DRC. As power battles rage between the DRC armed forces and the rebel M23 group, the population has been subject to widespread murder, rape, and displacement.

A young refugee stands in his shelter, a tent provided by the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, at the Kigeme refugee camp in southern Rwanda. The refugee camp Kigeme, which has long harboured Burundians in southern Rwanda, has just reopened to accommodate the Congolese fleeing the new wave of violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Paul Kagame, the very same leader who is widely applauded for achieving stability and security in Rwanda is also alleged to be causing regional instability. The UN and US have both accused Rwanda of supporting the Tutsi led M23 movement in Eastern DRC, the writer says. Picture: Flora Bagenal / AFP /

However, Kagame has been at pains to say that any involvement in the DRC conflict on the part of Rwanda is a defensive not aggressive move. In an interview published in March, in the East African weekly newspaper, Kagame said, “If Rwanda’s security is threatened, as that situation has done, I don’t need anybody’s permission to do whatever I have to do to make sure that Rwanda is protected.” President of DRC, Félix Tshisekedi, has compared Kagame to Adolf Hitler and argues that the Rwandan President has expansionist aims, and that he has his eyes set on the mineral wealth of the DRC.

Kagame appears seized with the task of protecting Rwanda and its people, and the gains made over the past 30 years. In an address earlier this year, the President spoke of how he does not leave the protection of Rwanda to chance. He remarked that while it is common wisdom that lightening does not strike twice, he would nonetheless want to ensure that he had the right lightening conductors to protect the house. It is an understandable stance given that no-one came to Rwanda’s rescue in 1994.

At the commemoration, Kagame spoke of how Rwandans conquered fear. He said, “Nothing can be worse than what we have already experienced. This is a nation of 14 million people, who are ready to confront any attempt to take us backwards.”

Rwanda has done well over the past 30 years since the genocide against the Tutsis. While SA has transgressed from its miracle nation standing in 1994 to the world’s most unequal nation in 2024, Rwanda has moved from a place of unimaginable pain in 1994 to a miracle nation in 2024. If President Paul Kagame is to be remembered in history as one of the giants of Africa, he will need to consolidate and build on the three decades of reconciliation and development in Rwanda. His role in the East African region should be one of reconciliation rather than rupture.

The landscape of Rwanda has transformed from one of damage to one of development, from genocide to growth. However, the foul act of ethnic cleansing which almost destroyed Rwanda in 1994, has left an indelible injury across East Africa. Many perpetuators, and ordinary Hutus fearless of persecution fled into neighbouring counties, including the DRC in 1994. Some of the Hutus militia responsible for the genocide in Rwanda against the Tutsis who fled to the DRC pledged to return to Rwanda to complete their gruesome task of ethnic cleansing. It is claimed that even today some of these elements are part of the DRC’s armed forces. The wound of the genocide continues to fester and bleed across East Africa. One hopes that President Paul Kagame helps to heal this wound in the same way he has done in Rwanda.

What legacy will Kagame leave? Will he be remembered for his leadership and development of Rwanda? Or for regional leadership and regional advancement? Or for regional conflict and conquer?

His chilling and heartfelt words at the commemoration captured his spirit of commitment to Rwanda. He said, “Our people will never — and I mean never — be left for dead again.” As a Pan Africanist leader, Kagame could help ensure that this is the united anthem of Africa as a whole.

In the commemoration, Kagame spoke of how Rwanda chose to think beyond the horizon of tragedy and become a people with a future. It is this thinking that needs to inform his involvement and role on the Continent.

Kim Heller is a political analyst and author of ‘No White Lies: Black Politics and White Power in South Africa’.

This article was written exclusively for The African. To republish, see terms and conditions.