Paul Kagame and American Evangelist, Rev. Rick Warren enjoy a light moment.
The politics in Rwanda keep on getting murkier and dirtier. Despite international protestation against the illegal arrest of American legal professor, Peter Erlinder in Rwanda, the government of Rwanda has remained defiant and vehemently refused to either release or accord him the dignity of a free, fair and speedy trial.
The calls for Erlinder’s release continue to gain momentum. The renowned legal scholar, Robert Amsterdam in an op-ed to the huffington post does not conceal his outrage that Peter Erlinder has been “ignored by the president of the United States and consigned to unlawful imprisonment by the lowest elements of the Kagame sycophants because of his political views”. He describes this sad news as a “grave disappointment” and declares Mr. Erilnder to be a political prisoner.
In a letter to the The Globe and Mail, Rwandan expert and genocide scholar, Professor Alan J. Kuperman also voiced his frustration. He states that “Mr. Kagame has now arrested Mr. Erlinder for arguing that the genocide was not premeditated”. And adds, “Rwanda today is a dictatorship run by a tiny elite of the Tutsi minority that suppresses the Hutu majority and denies past violence against Hutu civilians”. This is a very bold statement coming from a man who earns his living from studying Rwanda. Like other scholars before him, who have refuted Kigali’s official version of events, there is likelihood that Mr. Kuperman might never be welcomed to Rwanda again. Or even worse, might be charged with breaking one of those draconian/Stalinistic laws, all of them products of Paul Kagame’s ingenious constitution. The laws are “undermining” the Genocide and/or “revisionism of history”.
It is sad that it has taken the arrest of an American legal heavyweight for the world to get a glimpse of what is happening in Rwanda. Yet, for the longest time, human rights organizations have been reminding us that this is a country that lacks the minimum respect for human rights. The alarms have been ignored and just as it happened during the 1994 genocide, Rwanda continues to descend into a precarious ethnic dictatorship.
What is most surprising though, is the fact that, while the government of Rwanda has defied even the most basic democratic principles, its dictatorial leadership has attracted a lot of international praise and has been christened the “darlings of the west”. This striking irony is partly why many observers can’t help it but believe in popularly rumored conspiracy that Kagame is to the United States and Britain, what Mobutu was (to them) during the cold war. Indeed, and sadly, there are many similarities between president Kagame and the late Mobutu.
I hate to write about Mobutu. Every time his name is mentioned, it sends a cold chill down my spine. Mobutu was the African version of Stalin, who completely and purposefully weakened every institution of the republic before declaring himself president for life. We now know, thanks to declassified intelligence information that Mobutu was propped up as the new leader of Zaire, after a CIA-staged coup that resulted into the brutal assassination of the Congolese nationalist and independence leader, Patrice Lumumba. No leader had ever inspired as much hope for the continent as the late Lumumba did.
Mobutu, though by his own count, the wealthiest man in Africa, was not too busy enjoying his loot to kill. No, his was a complete reign of terror but; of course, with some sense of flamboyancy. He revived the ancient Roman Gladiatorial amusements, publicly hanging “political rivals, secessionists, coup plotters, and other threats to his rule”. In May 1966, to celebrate Labor Day, he ordered the shooting of his prime minister and three cabinet members. This was done before as an audience of 50,000—mostly poor peasants, who would otherwise be busy cultivating their fields.
However, Washington kept a blind eye to Mubutu’s excesses. In 1989, Mobutu became the first Statesman to visit the newly inaugurated president, George Bush Sr. In the French documentary Mobutu: roi du Zaire, President Bush is heard showering Mobutu with praises. Not very different from Reagan who had previously called Mobutu a “voice of good sense and goodwill”. Throughout Mobutu’s rule that lasted for more than two decades, criticism of Zaire’s democratic record was completely muted. The US chose to side with the worst despots while giving lip service to democracy.
But Mobutu had other influential friends outside Washington. One of the most striking and unlikely one is the infamous televangelist, Pat Robertson. Apparently, this US miracle worker enjoyed financial deals with Mobutu that included the sale of Congolese minerals. He was a key leading lobbyist for the regime at a time when, in Kinshasa, Mobutu’s dictatorial tendencies had turned human rights activists into an endangered species.
One cannot ignore the horrifying similarities between the two men. President Paul Kagame has attracted the praise of US Evangelical leaders, most notably among them being the influential Baptist minister, the Rev. Rick Warren. Last year, at a time when Congolese activists were accusing Kagame of raping and looting their country—Rwanda has invaded Congo three times in wars that have left 5 million dead, Rick Warren surprised many of us by finding the courage to award Paul Kagame with a “Peace Award”. Kagame remains the closet US ally in the region and the United States continues to ignore Kagame’s increasing despotism. I can’t help but agree with Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr that “the more things change, the more they remain the same”.