Declan Walsh: Exploiting our guilt over Rwanda's genocide

Kagame brands his critics as 'genocide apologists' just as Israel smears its opponents as anti-Semites

Wednesday 07 April 2004 00:00 BST

The Rwandan President, Paul Kagame, remains bitterly critical of Western failure to halt the genocidal slaughter that started a decade ago today. And he is absolutely right. International inaction in April 1994 was one of the 20th century's most shameful chapters.

The Rwandan President, Paul Kagame, remains bitterly critical of Western failure to halt the genocidal slaughter that started a decade ago today. And he is absolutely right. International inaction in April 1994 was one of the 20th century's most shameful chapters.

Yet although Mr Kagame is good at dishing out sharp words, he is not very good at accepting them. The poker-faced president leads an increasingly authoritarian government that exploits Western guilt to excuse his own abuses, which are legion. The independent press is harassed and intimidated. Two weeks ago the editor of the Kinyarwanda-language Umuseso fled to Tanzania after receiving death threats. In neighbouring Congo, his country's troops and their rebel proxies have committed horrific abuses, including pillage of diamonds and gold, murder of civilians and widespread rape.

But Mr Kagame unfairly brands his critics as "genocide apologists", just as Israel smears its opponents as anti-Semites. Mr Kagame also directs his vitriol at former friends. Alison des Forges, a human rights expert, painstakingly documented the gory details of the 1994 genocide. Now she is derided as an ill-intentioned meddler for daring to question some of Mr Kagame's actions. Anywhere else, the abuses perpetuated by Rwanda's government would trigger a cascade of international condemnation. But in Rwanda, donors turn a blind eye and pile in with bilateral aid. This acquiescent policy was pioneered under Clare Short, the former Secretary of State for International Development. She has gone from that job, but Britain, which is giving £37m this year, remains the largest donor. Only the Netherlands has held back some funding in protest.

Donors argue that Mr Kagame is stewarding a necessarily painful transition to normality. And donors like Rwanda because funds donated for education, healthcare and preventing Aids are, by and large, wisely spent.

It is also true that Mr Kagame has notched up a series of near-miraculous achievements. Only a decade after the devilish orgy, Rwanda is one of Africa's safest countries. Kigali residents can walk the streets at night without fear of muggings or carjackings. In the hilly countryside, Hutu and Tutsi families live side by side in a co-existence that is, on the surface at least, harmonious. The government has embarked on imaginative reforms, such as using the traditional courts to help deal with 90,000 genocide suspects.

And the economy is among Africa's fastest growing, albeit largely thanks to the aid funds inflow.

But the West's guilt-swathed generosity, bereft of criticism of Mr Kagame's vice-like grip on power, may be storing up problems for the future. Rwandans are reserved and difficult to read. In public, many subscribe to the official mantra that they are "not Hutu, not Tutsi, but Rwandan". Underneath the thin democratic veneer, however, dangerous currents are swirling.

Many Tutsi survivors feel Mr Kagame has failed to address their concerns, particularly in terms of justice against genocide perpetrators, 30,000 of whom are due for early release this June. Resentment also simmers among Hutus. Some believe Mr Kagame is determined to keep them underfoot in revenge for the genocide and as a means of cementing his hold on power. There is also anger that reprisal massacres against Hutus in the mid-1990s are not acknowledged. Some locals claim the dead were buried alongside Tutsi genocide victims at the nearby Murambi memorial site. Such sinister claims are unverified but they highlight the lack of open debate about Rwanda's painful past.

Mr Kagame leads the way in squashing dissent. When a CNN interviewer questioned him this week about last year's disputed presidential elections, in which he was awarded 95 per cent of the vote, the president impatiently dismissed the allegations as concerns that "most Rwandans" did not share. But they do.

Neither ethnic group has a monopoly on the truth, although Hutus must shoulder an immense collective blame. There is no easy solution to the conundrum of a threatened Tutsi minority - a problem mirrored in neighbouring Burundi - were the Hutus to be in charge again, but the honest discussion that is now being suppressed is a necessary first step.

Rwanda is a fragile nation that is still struggling to recover from unfathomable evil. Mr Kagame is correct to blame Western racism for the disgraceful failure to make a strong intervention in 1994, which exacerbated the genocide. And history could yet prove that his iron-fisted leadership was necessary. But the precedents are not good - few leaders who win elections with a 95 per cent majority end up building lasting democracies.

Influential donors such as Britain must differentiate between the survivors of the genocide and their government. If Rwanda is not ready for democracy, then all sides should say so honestly. Hutu extremists masterfully exploited intolerance to prepare the genocide of the Tutu people. Now Mr Kagame must encourage open debate to help steer Rwanda towards a harmonious future, one where the post-holocaust mantra - "never again" - regains its meaning.

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