Friday, December 9, 2011

Should Britain be concerned with Blair's role in Rwanda?

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Tony Blair is on an official visit to Rwanda. This is probably the seventh visit since his departure from Downing Street in 2007.

The visits are part of his Africa Governance Initiative; although, he is also an official adviser to the Rwandan president, Paul Kagame. As noted by the Independent, the two share a close but bizarre relationship in which Mr. Blair functions as Mr. Kagame’s “cheerleader-in-chief”.

How the former leader of one of the world’s most powerful democracies became the publicist for a notorious “predator of the press” is a subject that remains closely guarded. The many explanations that emerge are wild guesses that tend to be borderline conspiracy theories--the sort that blames the western world for all evil in this world.

My focus here is less on how the two became involved with each other, but more on the substantive outcome of what we might consider to be Mr. Blair’s advice.

What is becoming a bit more apparent is that Mr. Kagame seeks to use Mr. Blair as a cover up for his past and present failures. Indeed, the relationship seeks to extend credibility and legitimacy to a brutal dictatorship; which frequently uses murder as a political capital. As such, Mr. Blair has become the benign face that promises enticing reforms while Mr. Kagame continues with business as usual.

We do not know for a fact whether money is exchanged. What we know is that Mr. Blair is frequently shuttled around the world in Mr. Kagame’s private jets and gets celebrity treatment whenever in Kigali. For a man who was once one of the most powerful figures in the world, the appetite to feel important or regain a glorious past might be the weakness that Mr. Kagame is exploiting.

To be sure, the regime has the capacity to dismiss some of the killings that the opposition attributes to Mr. Kagame. However the capacity to do so does not depend on Mr. Kagame’s innocence or lack thereof. It is simply that, when Kagame’s critics get murdered, there is little that gets done in terms of investigations. Moreover, and naturally, the regime never admits responsibility for such crimes.

It is deemed more convenient for them to deny and deceive, hoping that the “naïve” westerners will fall prey to their antics and continue to pump aid money. Yet, despite the many human rights concerns that have been raised, including massive irregularities in the 2010 presidential elections, Britain has doubled aid money to Rwanda to become the country’s leading donor.

The whitewashing does not always seem to work in the regime’s favor. In fact, if recent media reports are any indication of western perception, Mr. Kagame is slowly being revealed for what he is. For many of us though, the truth has always been clear. By their very nature, the killings that target opposition members have often left Mr. Kagame’s ominous footprints

The fact that Mr. Kagame tolerates no dissent has never been a secret. The Economist has for instance argued that Mr. Kagame "allows less political space and press freedom at home than Robert Mugabe does in Zimbabwe". What is rather more surprising is that many people around the world appear too quick to forget that Mr. Kagame is essentially a military dictator. Otherwise, the world would be holding him to a much higher standard, if it remembered his questionable military past.

President Kagame’s speeches, at least those delivered in Kinyarwanda, are often filled with vile and threatening language. There is nothing inspiring about them. His diction is that of a man without patience who is always seeking to bully his way. He regularly refers to opposition figures as “human waste” and promises to crush them without mercy.

When such killings do happen, it is little wonder that the opposition identifies Mr. Kagame as the prime suspect. In deed, Rwandans have a proverb that says, “akaba ku mutima gasesekarira kumunwa” translating into (“that which is at the heart reveals through the mouth”). As we saw with the recent events in Libya, what a president says can inspire or destroy a nation!

Even if Mr. Kagame were to refute all the present allegations, his past is heavily tainted with greater crimes. Rwanda has invaded the Democratic Republic of Congo three times and has supported rogue militias including the CNDP whose leaders Laurent Nkunda and Bosco Ntaganda are wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for crimes against humanity. Moreover, various United Nations have accused Mr. Kagame of pillaging and stealing DRC’s mineral wealth.

As if the crimes above were not enough, Mr. Kagame has also been accused of committing a possible genocide against members of the rival Hutu ethnic group between 1996 and 1997. This is important because genocide is the crime of crimes. Moreover, Mr. Kagame often rides on his high horse claiming that he ended the Rwandan genocide. As such, if these crimes are referred to the ICC, the usual moral card that Kagame plays against the west might not count anymore. The evidence behind these allegations is very strong, the hence very reason why Rwandans believe that Kagame is a mass murderer.

In the meantime, Mr. Blair and Kagame seem to be winning. Mr. Blair seems to have won over the vast of British’s political class, whether conservatives or liberals, on Mr. Kagame’s side.

Since 2007, conservatives have been sending their MPs to Rwanda through project Umubano for volunteer work. This is indeed commendable since there is nothing wrong with trying to help the country’s poor. Nonetheless, it begs wondering whether the British parliamentarians would be comfortable to extend such missions to other oppressive countries such as Burma, North Korea or Zimbabwe. Doing so in Rwanda, sends the wrong message and weakens the resolve of those who are struggling to plant democracy.

Ultimately, as it seems, “crushing” independent voices is Mr. Kagame’s biggest fantasy. The question that needs asking is, should Britain be helping him to achieve this macabre goal?

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