Tony Blair is on an official visit to Kigali and as The Kigali New Times reports; this is his sixth visit to Rwanda. Mr. Blair has an excellent relationship with Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame and it is fair to say that he enjoys privileged influence over the Rwandan leader. So far, Mr. Blair has focused more on Rwanda’s economic development under the ongoing partnership between his Africa Governance Initiative (AGI) and the Government of Rwanda. In light of Kagame’s increasing autocracy, it is high time for Mr. Blair to encourage his Rwandan ally towards the road of democratic reform.
It is regrettable to say, but the last thing Rwanda needs is another powerful ally that looks on passively while the country continues to repress its citizens. We need not to be reminded of the role that the French played in Rwanda, and that their unconditional support for the late Juvenal Habyarimana regime, facilitated the 1994 genocide.
It needs to be said that the “economic development” argument often recited by people like Blair when justifying their support for Kagame is nothing new. Rwanda under Habyarimana was a relatively corrupt free country. Similarly, aid was efficiently utilized and Habyarimana, though oppressive, was a donor darling.
The French might have seen Habyarimana as a model for their colonies. If their policies are not revised, the British are bound to make the same mistake again. This would be very costly if shameful.
Kagame is able to play the same old “script” though quite more tactfully than his predecessor. He has recently diversified his international support, adding in China his new sources of aid. He speaks a different language to each and every ear. In the West, he is often he is heard giving lessons on democracy. At home, he is known for his cruelty. Indeed, this ambivalent character has corresponding effects on the Rwandan government.
Rwanda today has no free press, no functional parliament and the civil society is severely controlled. Power is extensively consolidated in hands of one man. Elections are so manipulated to the extent that the pro-government electoral commission often has to lower down Kagame’s margin win in order to appropriate some votes to “opposition” candidates. This, and many more tactics, has luckily given his government a façade of democracy.
Tony Blair (and Britain for that matter) would be a better friend of Rwanda, if they use their influence to raise the concerns that worry many Rwandans. It is not difficult for him to do so, after all, Britain is Rwanda’s largest donor. If aid cannot pave the way for democratic reform, then aid ceases to bear meaning. It is hard to find a justification for aid, if the same aid is used to prop up an authoritarian government that terrorizes its citizens. Never should aid be used to advance extremism. Rwanda knows all too well the risks involved.
I am not advocating for a total freeze on British aid. I think what is important here, is that aid is dispensed in a certain way that opens up (future) avenues for dialogue. The indifference we now see is criminal. Donors cannot afford to keep quiet even as the Rwandan state imprisons pro-democracy activists. The silence would never occur in another African country. We fail to understand why this would be deemed acceptable for Rwanda.
Rwandans deserve a response from Tony Blair and other international actors that continue to lend support to this criminal dictatorship. As history has painfully taught us, it is this kind of relationships that make African leaders unaccountable to their people. With foreign money trickling in and a number of high-placed individuals to plead their case, illiberal leaders like Mr. Kagame attach no value in democracy. After all, democracy might mean that they will have to lose power.