Rwanda President Paul Kagame told me this week in Kigali that he sees American policy towards Rwanda and the region as enigmatic and hypocritical — and that American lip service toward democracy sometimes “feels and sounds just like a joke.”
Kagame, who has long had a complicated relationship with the United States, suggested that the scramble for key minerals has driven U.S. officials to favor Congo over his country — and brushed off U.S. criticism of Rwandan involvement in conflict there as merely a matter of U.S. interests.
“To make sure that this situation does not deliver Congo to China you just say good things to them. It doesn’t have to be right. It doesn’t have to be wrong,” he said.
In an extensive discussion with a group of US journalists visiting as guests of the Rwanda government, Kagame said he thinks America deals with Rwanda, a nation that will mark the 30th anniversary since its tragic genocide next April, as an “afterthought.“
I asked two sets of questions of President Kagame. First, I asked whether he believed the US was aligned with him on what his current existential threats were as well as whether America mattered at all to him as he set forward looking goals for the country. Secondly, I asked whether his expectations of better Rwanda-U.S. relations were met after the commutation of Hotel Rwanda famous Paul Rusesabagina’s prison sentence and release and if the just announced Treasury Department sanctions against one of his top generals — who also happened to be Kagame’s former top policy advisor — had damaged relations again after the promise of a reset.
Kagame, who has led the nation since the defeat of the government that unleashed a nation-wide slaughter against its own citizens, said he’s fed up with American proselytizing about values and human rights as it does little to punish or pressure the Democratic Republic of Congo for hosting, supporting and even collaborating with the remnant forces of the previous genocidal regime. He said that his general, Brig-Gen Andrew Nyamvumba, was sanctioned so as not to upset the DRC who might turn towards China and away from the US in the great race for its large rare mineral assets. He said today in the case of Gabon and Niger, the Americans and the French worry most about whether their access to needed mineral imports will remain in place and really don’t care much about the true welfare of citizens in those countries.
Meanwhile, the situation on Rwanda’s border is extremely tense. As I write this, I am just 5 kilometers away from where Congolese troops killed more than 40 people amid a crackdown on a protest against United Nations peacekeepers.
An important part of the picture here is taking stock of which players are exacerbating tensions, and which are trying to calm them. I saw first hand here that Kagame’s government invests heavily in trying to attract back to Rwanda former commanders in the Forces Démocratiques de Libération du Rwanda, the force derived from Rwanda’s previous government that designed and enacted the genocide, and is now allegedly armed by the DRC military. Kagame’s government is offering them and their young indoctrinated soldiers the promise of a better life in their home country than what they have in the jungles of the DRC. They send these people through an official Rwanda Demobilization and Reintegration Program and essentially open themselves up to some who were active in the genocide three decades ago, as long as they undergo ideological deprogramming and become contributing members of Rwanda society. In the DRC, with more than 200 warring armed factions and militias, no program seems to be working on disarmament and some vision of a reintegrated society there.
In our discussion, Kagame brushed off criticism of his leadership and accusations that he is a dictator. He said he didn’t care about praise, but he said many of the critics do not want to acknowledge how far Rwanda and its people have come and don’t understand that the murderous forces connected to Rwanda’s nightmarish genocide have safe haven across the border and continue to threaten Rwanda’s security.
Rwanda’s success story is still fragile, that America’s engagement here often comes off as pretentious, preconceived philanthropy that doesn’t work on the ground or address the practical needs of Rwandans. Kagame and his leadership team somehow turned a situation where the dark side of humanity was pushed to its very limits into what seems like a functioning, growing, ambitious nation working to erase what had been colonially contrived and imposed ethnic divisions.
The real story of the disaster here nearly 30 years ago is rooted in a malevolent government that drew up plans to murder its own citizens at massive scale, bad decisions by the United Nations and indifference from the world’s major powers, including the United States. It’s hard not to see, as Kagame suggests, some of those same patterns from three decades ago still at play today when it comes to the inefficacy and inchoateness of the UN mission in the DRC, and the inconsistencies of a Biden White House on where it wants the Rwanda-US relationship to go.
Room for Disagreement
In June, a UN report accused Rwanda of supporting the M23 rebel group which has allegedly carried out human rights abuses in DRC including mass killings the rape of civilians. The report cited “evidence of direct interventions” by Rwanda’s armed forces in the neighboring country to support M23 fighters or conduct military operations against the FDLR.
The U.S. state department, responding to the UN report, called on Rwanda to “immediately cease support for the UN- and U.S.-sanctioned M23 armed group”. It also reiterated its call for Kigali to remove Rwandan troops from Congolese territory.
Rwanda has repeatedly denied backing the M23 rebel group.
The state department also denounced “collaboration” between DRC’s armed forces and “multiple armed groups, including the UN- and U.S.-sanctioned FDLR.”