Leading article: The UK has influence in Rwanda. We should use it

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The Independent Online

While Britain has been busy accepting its diminished influence on world affairs recently, this new humility should not be falsely extended to Rwanda. The UK remains the largest single donor to the government in Kigali, a contribution that President Paul Kagame, who was expected to win re-election convincingly yesterday, cannot afford to ignore.

The appeal of working with an administration that is rightly seen as determined and effective on some fronts is obvious. A recent index of East African corruption once again showed Rwanda to be far less corrupt that its neighbours and endorsed the notion that aid money actually reaches its intended recipients there.

In a region where foreign assistance is sometimes viewed as a cow to be milked, the tiny central African country with its compelling story of tragedy and redemption has come to be seen as a place where donors can get things done. Kigali has been well aware and richly capable of manipulating this favourable climate for its own benefit.

Critics of this close embrace who asked whether it was useful to lionise Mr Kagame and to ignore evidence of his autocratic tendencies were reminded of the recent horrors of the genocide and told not to expect too much too soon. Where were these critical voices when Rwandan Tutsis were dying in their hundreds of thousands, it was asked.

If nothing else, the build-up to yesterday's election, where the outcome was never in doubt, has exposed the limited nature of this thinking. All meaningful authority in the mountainous nation has been concentrated in the hands of a single military clique. As this elite has gradually fallen out with itself over the past 16 years, the contest for power has become more bitter and unstable. In a country in which no political space is allowed for this struggle to be made public it only breaks the surface in a more savage manner: A former general attacked in Johannesburg by a lone gunman; a critical journalist murdered, his head nearly severed from his body; an opposition leader assassinated.

The regime in Kigali first insists that these events are unconnected, then blames rogue elements in the diaspora. In either case it denies involvement. An election that has done nothing to suggest how Rwanda can evolve from a tightly controlled one-party state into a more open society has done nothing to stabilise the situation.

The international community and the British Government in particular can bring their influence to bear. The Commonwealth of Nations was wrong to hold its nose and admit Rwanda last year despite an independent report from a human rights body that condemned the country's repeated destabilisation of its neighbour, the Democratic Republic of Congo. That report concluded that Kigali had hoodwinked the rest of the world by effectively playing to its conscience over the genocide while operating an "army with a state".

Foreign influence can be effective and useful. Rwanda was embarrassed into cutting its most obvious links to the Tutsi-led rebel armies rampaging around Eastern Congo. Equally there are options for Rwanda's leading donors now. An unequivocal demand for a free trial for those facing charges of genocide denial could remove one of the more subtle levers of repression that have been used to neuter the opposition and silence civil society.

Likewise an international inquiry into the recent spate of dissident murders would do much to dispel any notions in the ruling party in Kigali that today's triumphant poll results mark a return to business as usual. There is no point in compounding past failures on Rwanda with a refusal to reassess a flawed approached to the present. The choice between freedom or development should be denounced as false.