‘States of fear’ are run by rulers who flout the law, basic morals

Rwanda is a republic of fear. That’s what available evidence suggests in spite of all the accolades about its zealously guarded reputation as an “African tiger.” I agree that Rwanda is a tiger alright, but of another species whose tail you better not pinch. There’s no doubt Rwanda’s “benevolent” dictator Paul Kagame has prevented the tiny country from erupting into another spasm of genocide. He’s pursued a “shiny objects” development policy with the pliable assistance of the Bretton Woods institutions.

He’s trying to do a Lee Kuan Yew, which Singapore rode to stratospheric development. Time will tell if he’s spun a mirage. But what we know is that he’s running a deadly police state and a kleptocracy of fear.  On October 2, 2018, Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi Washington Post writer walked into his country’s consulate in Istanbul, Turkey. Mr Khashoggi would never come out because he was set upon by senior Saudi officials sent from Riyadh to kill him. The brutality of the “operation” shocked the entire world. The men strangled and dismembered him with a saw.

His remains have never been found. At first, Saudi Arabia lamely tried a cover up but was forced to admit the murder after the Turks provided taped evidence. American, Turkish, and other intelligence services concluded that the murder was ordered by Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman. I am telling you this because Saudi Arabia is a “kingdom of fear.” 

“States of fear” are run by absolute rulers. That’s North Korea under Kim Jong Un. That’s Sudan under Omar al Bashir. That’s Eritrea under Isaias Afwerki. That’s Uganda under Yoweri Museveni. That’s Russia under Vladmir Putin. That’s Venezuela under Nicolas Maduro. That’s Syria under Bashar al Assad. And that’s Rwanda under Kagame. Most countries in this notorious list aren’t doing too good. We know how Libya’s Muamar Gaddafi met his end. It remains to be seen whether Rwanda under Mr Kagame has crossed the Rubicon or whether he’s in fact laying the groundwork for another genocide. The fear that grips Rwanda is spoken of in whispers. Every citizen spies on their neighbour. This is now Rwanda’s code of citizenship. 

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There’s another index of a republic of fear. That’s whether leaders are elected in a relatively free political environment. Do the freedoms of association, speech, and expression exist? Is there an independent press? Can political parties function freely? In Rwanda’s case, the answers to all these questions are negative. The Times, the lone newspaper with any appreciable circulation, is a subservient and unapologetic government mouthpiece. The government has proscribed BBC’s Kinyarwanda service since 2014. A nascent civil society is gasping for rare oxygen. Diane Rwigara, a harmless opposition presidential candidate and her family were imprisoned or persecuted until Kagame was safely elected. The charges against her were textbook Orwellian dystopia. The torment of Ms Rwigara was classic dictator insecurity.

Messianic complex

Then there’s this – the scrapping of presidential term limits to make Kagame dictator for life. Dictators often suffer from a messianic complex. Their belief is that no one can rule but them. We saw this with Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire. They are the state, and the state is them – captured in the French expression “l’etat ce moi” (I myself I am the state). That’s why, like Kagame, a dictator rams through constitutional amendments to obliterate term limits. But another psychosis of the dictator is to win elections with absolute margins. Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak used to win with over 90 per cent. In the 2017 elections, Kagame won with a whopping 98.8 per cent. That’s a sham election. 

I saved the worst for the last. Before the savage murder of Khashoggi, Rwanda had perfected the assassination of its citizens abroad. The backdrop is that Kagame has fallen out with many of his most senior original comrades. I am talking about commanders in the army, intelligence, and the highest echelons of the state. They fled fearing assassination after they differed with his rule. A few examples will suffice. A South African court found that Alex Ruta, a Rwandan intelligence officer, sneaked into South Africa and strangled to death in a Johannesburg hotel Col Patrick Karegeya, a Rwandan intelligence defector. It was an act of depravity.

In 2010, the South African government recalled its ambassador from Kigali to protest Rwanda’s attacks on dissidents. In 2014, South Africa expelled Rwandan diplomats over the murder of Mr Karegeya. There have been numerous plots to snuff out the lives of other senior defectors. The most prominent was the attempt to kill Gen Faustin Kayumba Nyamwesa, a former Rwandan army chief. These acts violate international law and basic morals.  Most Rwandans can’t speak up, but the world won’t keep silent.

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- The writer is SUNY Distinguished Professor at SUNY Buffalo Law School and Chair of KHRC.  @makaumutua.

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RwandaPaul KagameLee Kuan YewLaw