Oxford University's prestigious business school has been dragged into a row over plans to present the president of Rwanda with a student award for his country's economic development despite continuing controversy over his regime's human rights record.
Paul Kagame, the one-time poster boy of development whose reputation has been dulled by accusations of authoritarianism and fomenting conflict in Congo, will be greeted by protesters when he attends the Said Business School tomorrow to give a keynote conference speech.
A coalition of campaigners, including Congolese refugees and a prominent Oxford academic, are backing calls for the university to cancel the invitation, saying it amounts to a vote of confidence in Mr Kagame at a time when he is under pressure over human rights violations.
The clash is the latest controversy to surround the Rwandan leader, who last year saw Britain suspend £16m of direct budgetary support to his government over "credible" reports that it was supporting the M23 rebel group responsible for atrocities in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo.
The continuing dispute has done little to dent enthusiasm in financial and political circles for Rwanda's continued economic growth, which will reach eight per cent this year. The country's first ever sale of Eurobonds this month, securing $400m in funding for infrastructure and investment projects, was over-subscribed.
In a sign of thawing relations with Britain, which remains Rwanda's largest single aid donor, the country's foreign minister, Louise Mushikiwabo, met the foreign secretary William Hague on Thursday as part of the visit to London by a sizable Rwandan delegation.
But critics said the decision by the Oxford Business Network for Africa, a student organisation within the business school, to make Mr Kagame the first recipient of its Distinction of Honour for African Growth risked tainting the university.
A petition calling on the student group and the business school to cancel the award had yesterday reached nearly 5,500 signatures. A counter-petition, applauding the award, had collected 2,300 signatures.
In a letter to the dean of the school, Professor Barbara Harrell-Bond, the founding director of the university's respected Refugee Studies Centre, said: "Bestowing any honour upon Mr Kagame at a time when he and his government are becoming increasingly isolated in the face of mounting evidence of their gross human rights violations represents a serious error of judgment.
"It positions the conference organizers and the University of Oxford against international efforts to pressure Mr Kagame to end his abuses and play a more constructive role in the achievement of African peace and development."
A spokesman for a coalition of Congolese and Rwandan opposition groups, including Liberation, a Congolese women's rights group, added: "It would be a disgrace for any university of Oxford's calibre to ignore all the information in the public domain about Kagame's crimes both on his people and abroad, and roll out a red carpet for him."
The business school, ranked in the top ten outside the United States, underlined that the award was the decision of the student group but said it was allowing today's event to go ahead because of its commitment to freedom of speech.
In a statement, the school said: "We prize open discussion and ... we have not sought to prevent the students from extending this invitation. President Kagame's presence in the Saïd Business School does not imply any endorsement by the school or the university of his views or actions. We are aware that President Kagame is considered by some to be a controversial figure."
The student group defended its award, saying it was "in recognition of [Mr Kagame's] work in opening and developing Rwanda's economy" and there would be an opportunity for those critical of his government to raise questions.
The Rwandan High Commission in London did not respond to requests from The Independent to comment on the criticisms of Mr Kagame, who will also attend a Rwanda Day celebration for hundreds of members of the Rwandan diaspora while in London.
Rwanda has strongly denied any involvement in M23 and condemned a United Nations report chronicling links between the group and senior members of the Rwandan military. Critics have also accused Mr Kagame of trampling on media and political freedoms, maintaining a hostile environment for opposition politicians.
The Independent revealed that Scotland Yard also served notices on two UK-based dissidents in 2011 warning them of "reliable intelligence" that their lives were under threat from assassins sent by the Rwandan authorities.
Britain earlier this year reinstated aid to Rwanda after halting direct budgetary support to the country last November because of the activities of M23. The £16m will be distributed in the form of direct payments to impoverished Rwandans and textbooks for schoolchildren.
The Independent understands there are no immediate plans to reinstate direct aid payments to the Rwandan government.
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