From the Trenches: Will Kagame be Dictator for Life?

“From the Trenches” is a battle cry. In a globalized world that criminalizes the rebellious in spirit, it’s easy to forget that change-minded activists and organizers are tallying up tiny victories against sociocultural and economic oppression on the regular. The column will serve as a weekly reminder that we not only can win, but we do, often. So hasta la victoria siempre and all that.

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Apparently, most US Americans don’t know shit about Africa. So let’s talk about Rwanda.

For over 20 years, Paul Kagame, a former rebel leader of the Rwanda Patriotic Army credited with helping to end the country’s 1994 genocide, has been the much-loved leader of the country. Rwanda’s economy is on the upswing. Political stability has returned. Optimism abounds. The country has become a staunch ally of the West (which we dig because, hello, mineral wealth!).

Rwandans are so down with Kagame, in fact, that nearly 4 million of them have signed a petition (allegedly backed by Kagame supporters) demanding he be allowed to seek another term as president–which would require changing the country’s constitution. Al Jazeera America reports that in nearby Burundi, when President Pierre Nkurunziza made a similar attempt to extend term limits led to “deadly civil unrest and an attempted coup.”

The thought of an unlimited and legal Kagame dictatorship (remember, he’s already been in office for the past two decades) pissed off the Rwandan opposition. As a result, the Rwandan Supreme Court has decided it will hear a case filed by the opposition disputing the legality of altering the constitution via referendum to extend term limits. The case will be heard against the administration’s wishes.

Now you may be asking yourself: What about the Rwandan people? If they’re so gung-ho about Kagame, why shouldn’t he be allowed to run for office?

Simple answer: Like so many Western-backed heads of state in the Global South, Paul Kagame is something of a war criminal. He has been accused of committing atrocities during Rwanda’s genocide, has curtailed human rights within the country since assuming office (critics have been targeted by repression or worse; journalists and investigators have been disappeared) and he has played a critical and disturbing role in the violence in neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo. Politico reported in 2014:

U.N.  documentation  implicates senior Rwandan military staff who report directly to Kagame in the large-scale massacre of perhaps tens of thousands  of  civilians, including unarmed women and children, in 1996 and 1998—acts that the United Nations has said are war crimes and possibly acts of genocide. … At the time of the massacres, [Condoleeza] Rice, then the assistant secretary of state for African affairs, reportedly  said in a private conversation, “The only thing we [the United States] have to do is look the other way.”  Later, as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, she reportedly  tried to block the publication of a 2010 U.N. report about the killings.  Washington has also shielded Kagame from the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), set up to prosecute killings during the genocide: In 2003, the United States  pushed to remove Carla del Ponte, an ICTR prosecutor, after she began to investigate crimes linked to Kagame, which the United States feared would destabilize his government.

But Rwanda’s role in the violence in DRC, a series of conflicts that have resulted in somewhere in the neighborhood of 6 million deaths, didn’t end in 1998. The UN says Kagame’s administration backed and armed rebel groups in eastern Congo, a part of the country that was “under the control of warlords, and the people endured mass rape, massacres and starvation.” And then there’s Rwanda’s coltan industry, which allegedly produces far more than the nation’s meager deposits of the mineral could provide, unlike neighboring DRC, with its booming (and human-rights-violating) coltan industry. Most of Rwanda’s (as well as Uganda’s and Burundi’s) production, then, is likely material smuggled in from DRC.

So you see, there’s no shortage of evidence that another Kagame administration–that’s 7 more years–would be a danger to Rwandans, as well as to their neighbors. Now here’s hoping that when the court considers the case later this month, it remembers just how much more dangerous an Kagame could potentially become.

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