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Paul Kagame: Rwanda's polarising strongman

Paul Kagame: Rwanda's polarising strongman

International Desk

His supporters hail Rwandan President Paul Kagame for his role in ending the 1994 genocide and bringing peace to a traumatised nation, but critics accuse him of ruling through fear and repression.

Kagame was just 36 when his Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) rebel army routed the Hutu extremists who had slaughtered hundreds of thousands of mainly Tutsis, becoming the shattered country's de facto leader.

He won plaudits from Western nations seeking to atone for their inaction during the genocide and has been credited with an economic renaissance that sees annual GDP growing at around eight percent.

But he has not concealed his willingness to shut down criticism and pursue anyone his government regards as an enemy of the state, including "Hotel Rwanda" hero Paul Rusesabagina, who has called Rwandans "prisoners in their own country".

Kagame's personality -- described as "unapologetically authoritarian" by author Philip Gourevitch, who wrote a powerful account of the genocide -- was forged by growing up in exile.

Born to Tutsi parents, Kagame's family fled to neighbouring Uganda in 1960 to escape pogroms.

The refugees suffered discrimination and served as a fertile recruiting ground for a rebel force led by Yoweri Museveni.

After Museveni seized power and became president in 1986, Kagame rose to become Uganda's intelligence chief.

But he never gave up hope of returning to his homeland.

- Rebuilding Rwanda -

Kagame received military training in the United States and Cuba and eventually took command of a small rebel force of Rwandan exiles that sneaked back home hoping to overthrow the Hutu-dominated regime of Juvenal Habyarimana in 1990.

Civil war broke out. But worse was to come.

When Habyarimana's plane was shot down on April 6, 1994, Hutu extremists went on a rampage, whipping up a frenzy of hate targeting the Tutsi minority.

Around 800,000 people, mostly Tutsi but also moderate Hutus, were slaughtered over the next 100 days.

The bloodletting came to a stop as Kagame's RPF militia captured Kigali.

With not a single franc left in the national treasury, his band of rebels had to rebuild the country.

Foreign aid poured in, with a guilt-ridden international community eager to make amends for its collective failure during the genocide.

Even as the RPF was accused of killing tens of thousands of people in the Democratic Republic of Congo while pursuing genocide perpetrators, foreign nations turned a blind eye to the allegations.

A turning point emerged in 2012, when accusations of Kigali arming rebel groups in the DRC prompted Washington to suspend aid to Rwanda.

Last year, the United Nations, the United States and several Western nations accused Kagame's government of backing the Tutsi-led M23 rebel militia, which has seized vast swathes of the DRC's North Kivu province.

Kigali has denied the claims and accused Kinshasa in turn of harbouring a Hutu-led militia hostile to Rwanda.

However, asked by The East African weekly newspaper in an interview published in March if there are Rwandan soldiers in the DRC, Kagame said: "If Rwanda's security is threatened, as that situation has done, I don't need anybody's permission to do whatever I have to to make sure that Rwanda is protected."

- No country for critics -

Criticism of Rwanda's dismal human rights record has grown, with dissidents imprisoned, forced into exile or assassinated.

Kagame critic Rusesabagina was arrested in 2020 when a plane he believed was bound for Burundi landed instead in Kigali in what his family called a kidnapping.

He was sentenced to 25 years in jail on terrorism charges, before being released following a presidential pardon last year.
All but one of Rwanda's registered opposition parties back the RPF and Kagame, who became president in 2000, has won three elections with more than 90 percent of the vote.

He is widely expected to win again in July presidential polls.

Yet, even as his iron-fisted governance has raised eyebrows among some Western nations, others have leaped to Rwanda's defence.

The British government has declared Rwanda a safe country as it seeks to send migrants there under a 2022 deal.

Kagame, a 66-year-old father of four, coolly dismisses any criticism as baseless.
"Every day we are being fired at. A lot of lies, hundreds," he said in a 2021 interview with AFP and France Inter.

He has presided over controversial changes to the constitution which allow him to potentially rule until 2034.

"I don't know where we would be today if a weak leader had taken over this country (after the genocide)," he told Jeune Afrique magazine in 2016.

"A strong leader is not necessarily a bad leader."

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