Rwanda’s Paul Kagame was re-elected as president in 2010 with close to 94 per cent of the vote. On September 18, his party won an overwhelming majority in legislative election — 40 of 53 available seats.
But his approval is not universal.
When he arrives in Toronto for Saturday’s Rwanda Day festivities, he will be greeted by a protest organized by Rwandan and Congolese ex-patriot groups.
“Kagame is known as a war criminal responsible of massive killings in Rwanda and Congo,” says Pierre-Claver Nkinamubanzi, president of the Rwandan Congress of Canada. ”He also supports the M23 rebels who are killing and raping innocent civilians in eastern Congo.”
Nkinamubanzi is part of an international effort that protests Kagame wherever he goes. In most instances, Nkinamubanzi tries to stop the Rwandan president from going anywhere at all.
He threatens the hotels that he believes Kagame will be staying at.
He told both the Sheraton and Westin Harbour hotels that his protests would “strongly, but negatively, affect business activities”, and that “huge crowds of Canadians from Congolese, Burundese, Tanzanian origin but also native Canadians” would show up on Rwanda Day.
(The organizers of Rwanda Day would not address the protests, and do not list Kagame’s location on their website.)
Rebel leader turned president
Paul Kagame began his career in the military. He fought in the Ugandan Bush War to overthrow dictator Idi Amin. He joined the Rwandan Patriotic Front, a rebel group which invaded Rwanda in 1990. He was a rebel leader during that country’s tragic genocide period in 1993, the conflict was between Tutsis and Hutus, divisions that caused an estimated one million deaths.
He became president in 2000. His record since then has been one of economic triumph.
“He has really lifted up Rwanda GDP rate, and he has brought an efficiency in government which is unique in Africa,” says Thomas Tieku, an assistant professor at King’s College in Western University and a fellow at Toronto’s Munk School of International Affairs.
But it’s that economic progress, Tieku says, that can be seen as the root of opposition to Kagame.
“Economically he is doing really well, but like most despots, he is doing that at the expense of political openness,” he says. “Those who are benefiting from the economy will quietly support him. But others absolutely can’t stand him.”
In this respect, Tieku sees similarities between Kagame and recently deposed and murdered Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi — brutal and ruthless with his enemies, but creating wealth and stability in a poor country. (Though he adds Kagame is less melodramatic and more politically savvy.)
'For those paying attention to the Congolese situation, Kagame is a horrible person' - Munk fellow Thomas Tieku
But what is most appalling for protesters like Nkinamubanzi is Kagame’s ties with rebel groups in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo.
“We protest today the Canadian government’s permission for the visit,” says Gally Gasana, a Rwandan ex-patriot and protester. “We protest today the war in Congo, the mass murder of hundreds and thousands of people.”
Several international agencies, including the United Nations, state that Kagame has links between the rebels, known as the M23, in the eastern Congo. The rebels use violence including rape to extract minerals from the Congolese countryside.
Rwanda, a country without such resources, is suspected of trading the minerals.
“People hate him because of his support for rebels in the DRC. These rebels are murdering individuals in the name of extracting minerals,” says Tieku. “For those paying attention to the Congolese situation, Kagame is a horrible person.”
Rwanda Day, predictably, does not touch upon this but instead focuses on the country’s recent prosperity, which, by all economic indications is a success story. Organizers call it a celebration of Rwanda’s “transformation.”
But Kagame does have his supporters.
Many see him as a force of peace during the horrific 1993 genocide, where he worked with Canadian Lieutenant-General Roméo Dallaire-led U.N. mission to bring an end to the ethnic war.
He has since grown the per-capita GDP of Rwanda by 300 per cent. Life expectancy has gone from 36 to 54 years. The country is seen as stable in an African Great Lakes region that has not seen stability for decades.
He also has a reputation as a charismatic speaker.
"The thing with our president is when he speaks, you feel like he's speaking to you individually, “ says Allan Karakire in a video posted by Rwanda Day organizers. “He makes you proud of where we come from. He unites us."
But more than being a polarizing figure, Kagame is troubling for anyone who is looking at the future of the African continent, says Tieko.
Kagame, he argues, is the new mold of an African dictator. He creates a facade of democracy by holding elections without an opposition, creating mayhem in neighbouring countries under the cover of militias and operating a police state where the economy can grow but civil liberties are non-existent.
Tieko says Kagame is in a class with Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni and recently deposed Mali leader Amadou Touré.
“He is creating another bunch of African dictators. He’s leading new generation,” he says.