Revision — From the August 2019 issue

Brutal from the Beginning

The truth about everyone’s favorite strongman

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Celebrity sightings are a familiar feature of the modern N.B.A., but this year’s playoffs included an appearance unusual even by the standards of America’s most star-­friendly sports league. A few minutes into the first game of the Western Conference semifinals, between the Golden State Warriors and the Houston ­Rockets—the season’s hottest ticket, featuring the reigning M.V.P. on one side and the reigning league champions on the other—­President Paul Kagame of Rwanda arrived with an entourage of about a dozen people, creating what the sports website The Undefeated called “a scene reminiscent of the fashionably late arrivals of Prince, Jay-­Z, Beyoncé and Rihanna.”

Illustration by Ricardo Martínez

Illustration by Ricardo Martínez

The league had provided Kagame with tickets in thanks for his efforts developing the game of basketball in Africa. “President Kagame and his family are very knowledgeable N.B.A. fans,” league commissioner Adam Silver noted, “and we appreciate his support and that of other African leaders to grow the game across the continent.”

In some ways Kagame—who has ruled over Rwanda since the rebel Rwandan Patriotic Front (R.P.F.), which he commanded, won a civil war against the genocidal Hutu regime, twenty-­five years ago this month—seems an unlikely candidate for such treatment. For a quarter century, he has maintained power through familiar authoritarian means—­rewriting constitutions to establish one-­party rule and extend term limits, administering elections in which he received up to 99 percent of the vote. His reign has also been marked by widespread ­human-­rights abuses, ­likely including the assassination of political opponents.

Yet he remains widely popular in the international community, celebrated not just courtside at Oracle Arena but by Western leaders, such as Bill Clinton, who called Kagame a “brilliant man” who has “freed the heart and the mind of his people,” and awarded him with the Clinton ­Global Initiative’s Global Citizen Award. As recently as 2009, ­Philip Gourevitch hailed him in the pages of The New Yorker as “one of the most formidable political figures of our age.” Many of these international supporters acknowledge that he has become increasingly autocratic over the years, but for them Kagame remains above all the hero who stopped a genocide and, in the process, saved perhaps hundreds of thousands of lives.

A close examination of Kagame’s personal and political life reveals a more complicated story. In many ways, Kagame can be counted among those responsible for the genocide’s start, and bringing the killing to an end was less a humanitarian priority than a natural consequence of his coming to power. Meanwhile, everything Kagame has done in office suggests that he was not corrupted by that power but that he was brutal from the very beginning.

Born on October 23, 1957, in the Nyarutovu hills in southern Rwanda, Paul Kagame fears nothing and no one. His parents, members of the Tutsi minority and of royal lineage, sought refuge in Uganda in 1959, during what is known as the social revolution, when the Hutu majority, supported by Rwanda’s Belgian former colonizers, toppled the Tutsi monarchy and took revenge against their former masters, carrying out persecutions and pogroms. Kagame and other members of the Tutsi diaspora had little hope of returning to their country except as second-­class citizens, so they organized and attempted to achieve political influence through the Rwandese Alliance for National Unity (R.A.N.U.).

Like many young members of the R.A.N.U., Kagame joined the future Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni’s anti­colonial leftist guerrilla force, which fought to overthrow first Idi Amin’s dictatorship in 1979, then Milton Obote’s in 1985. When Museveni himself came to power in 1986, Kagame became one of the pillars of Uganda’s intelligence services, overseeing the administration of the Directorate of Military Intelligence. “He was feared because he used terror to carry out his duties,” according to Abdul Ruzibiza, a Rwandan and former lieutenant in Kagame’s army. Ruzibiza adds that Rwandans in Museveni’s National Resistance Army considered Kagame the most important person in the military hierarchy after Fred Rwigyema, another Rwandan, who was the vice minister of defense and Museveni’s right-­hand man.

On October 2, 1990, roughly three thousand Tutsi soldiers deserted the Ugandan Army with Museveni’s implicit blessing, taking arms and equipment to lead an attack on Rwanda under Rwigyema’s command. On the first day of the struggle, Rwigyema was killed under circumstances that remain unclear, and Kagame took over military operations.

Backed by Uganda’s logistic support, Kagame proved a formidable adversary for the Rwandan regime’s inexperienced, undisciplined troops. The offensive was repelled only with France’s help. French President Francois Mitterrand, who considered the R.P.F.’s offensive a foreign aggression backed by Anglo-­American interests, ordered the supply of equipment and the training of Rwandan military staff, while French commandos were sent on reconnaissance missions behind R.P.F. lines. France’s military chief of staff, Christian Quesnot, described Kagame’s party as the “most fascist [he’d] seen in Africa” and referred to its members as “black Khmers.”

At the time, French military units were starting to be replaced by U.N. peacekeeping forces, as France slowly pulled out of a country where, unlike in such oil-­rich former colonies as Gabon or Congo-­Brazzaville, it had no direct economic or strategic interests. The Arusha Accords, negotiated between June 1992 and August 1993, outlined a political process for power-­sharing between Juvénal Habyarimana’s Hutu regime and Kagame’s Tutsi rebellion, with the aim of ending the civil war and creating a path toward free, democratic elections.

Despite the constraints imposed by the peace agreement, extremists on both sides were actively preparing for war. Habyarimana was torn between the opposition, which favored sharing power with the R.P.F., and the ultra-­radical wing of his majority, which openly expressed its genocidal intentions. Party hard-­liners were enraged at the huge concessions granted to the R.P.F. under the accords. Meanwhile, Kagame knew that his party had absolutely no chance of winning an election whose outcome would remain largely determined by ethnic criteria. He adopted a “talk and fight” tactic, alternating between combat and negotiations under the auspices of the international community and France.

“In June 1992, I was sympathetic to Kagame’s cause, and visited the zones controlled by his army,” the historian Gérard Prunier recalls. “It was a ghost country, empty, while the rest of Rwanda was totally over-­populated. The R.P.F. soldiers told me that all the Hutus had fled.”

Though officially at peace, Rwanda was in reality a smoldering volcano.

The eruption occurred on April 6, 1994, when the Falcon jet carrying Habyarimana, along with the president of Burundi and a French aircraft crew, was shot down as it prepared to land in Kigali on its return from a regional summit in Tanzania. The president’s death plunged the capital into horror. Hutu extremists, supervised by the police and the president’s guards, set up roadblocks and began killing moderate political opponents and the Tutsi minority, who were considered the fifth column of the R.P.F.

Overwhelming evidence points to Kagame’s R.P.F. as the culprits behind the assassination. The R.P.F. had technicians trained in the complex deployment of the surface-­to-­air missiles supplied by the Ugandan Army. Kagame’s troops were on the move in the hours following the attack, launching a major offensive on multiple fronts. “These maneuvers required several weeks, even months, to prepare,” according to Colonel Luc Marchal of the U.N. Assistance Mission for Rwanda (U.N.A.M.I.R.). “It is strictly impossible that they were carried out in reaction to the first massacres of Tutsis in Kigali, as the R.P.F. claims.”

Evidence provided by Kagame’s close circle has continued to accumulate over the years, including the testimony of his former cabinet chief, Theogene Rudasingwa, now a refugee in the United States; of his former head of intelligence services, Patrick Karegeya; and of his former Army chief, Faustin Kayumba Nyamwasa. To silence these damaging witnesses, Kagame dispatched henchmen to track down the “traitors.” Karegeya was strangled to death in a hotel room in Johannesburg on January 1, 2014. Nyamwasa managed to escape several assassination attempts, and on June 22, 2016, he testified before the South African courts. “The assassination plan was conceived by Paul Kagame because he wanted a power grab, assisted by the commander of the High Command unit, James Kabarebe, and Charles Kayonga, commander of the Third battalion in Kigali,” Nyamwasa told the magistrates, while denying that he had any previous knowledge or involvement in the plot. (His caution was well-­founded, since the United Nations rightly considered the attack the spark that ignited the genocide.)

After the war ended, Kagame never ordered an inquiry into the assassination, and the United States applied pressure to keep the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda from pursuing the case. It wasn’t until 1998, when the families of the French crew killed in the explosion filed a complaint, that Jean-­Louis Bruguière, the French counter­terrorism magistrate, conducted an investigation, resulting in international arrest warrants against nine prominent R.P.F. members.

Kagame was ­furious—he would later accuse France of complicity in the genocide and even of having participated in its planning and execution—­but other jurisdictions upheld Bruguière’s findings. The Office of Special Investigations, established by the Swiss investigating magistrate Carla del Ponte, who was appointed prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, had gathered evidence supporting the French judge’s conclusions. In a document classified top secret, dated October 1, 2003, her investigators provided details based on testimony from the defectors on the transport of the missiles that had downed the plane, as well as the preparatory briefings that had been held in the R.P.F.’s general headquarters in Mulindi, attended by Kagame, Nyamwasa, and Kabarebe, among others.

A Spanish inquiry led to identical conclusions. In an indictment dated February 6, 2008, the result of a long investigation into the assassination of nine Spanish citizens in Rwanda between 1994 and 1997, Judge Fernando Andreu Merelles accused Kagame’s inner circle of blowing up the president’s plane and thus kindling the apocalyptic killings in Rwanda in order to instill

a regime of terror and a parallel criminal structure to the rule of law, whose preestablished goal was sequestration, rape of women and girls, the perpetuation of terrorist activities (conducted with the goal of appearing as if they were the work of their enemies), the incarceration of thousands of citizens without the least due process of law, selective assassinations, the destruction and systematic elimination of corpses that had been stripped of their identification in mass graves, massive incineration of corpses and dumping them in lakes and rivers, and random attacks on civilians based on ethnic preselection.

Relying on testimony from “R.P.F. refugees and defectors with previous important political and administrative responsibilities within the forces,” the Spanish National Court in Madrid accounted for more than three hundred thousand Rwandans massacred “selectively and deliberately” by the R.P.F.

In the four months after Habyarimana’s assassination, on April 6, 1994, the Hutu génocidaires killed hundreds of thousands of Tutsis in broad daylight, even going into hospitals in Kigali to finish off survivors in front of horrified human-­rights workers, leaving the bodies of women and children to rot on the roadsides. The killings committed at the same time by the R.P.F. were largely carried out far from public view. A declassified memorandum from the U.S. State Department, dated September 12, 1994, informed Washington of the investigation carried out by the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (U.N.H.C.R.) in southern and southeastern Rwanda. Robert Gersony, the envoy sent by U.N. Secretary-­General Boutros Boutros-­Ghali, had traveled throughout the country in July and August and discovered bodies of recently killed Hutus strewn along the hillsides. Gersony wrote:

On the basis of interviews with refugees/­individuals, the UNHCR team concluded that a pattern of killing had emerged. The RPA [Rwanda Patriotic Army] convened meetings to discuss peace and security. Once the displaced persons were assembled, RPA soldiers moved in and killed them. In addition to these massacres, the RPA engaged in house-­to-­house sweeps and hunted down individuals hiding in swamps. Victims were usually killed with hoes, axes, machetes and fire. Although males aged 18-­40 were at highest risk, the young and elderly were not spared.

The State Department memo added:

The UNHCR team speculated that the purpose of the killing was a campaign of ethnic cleansing intended to clear certain areas in the south of Rwanda for Tutsi habitation. The killings also served to reduce the population of Hutu males and discouraged refugees from returning to claim their lands.

Other crimes against humanity were perpetrated several months after the war ended, in the presence of human-­rights workers and U.N. peacekeepers. One of the most well known is the slaughter at the Kibeho Hutu refugee camp, located in a small town in southern Rwanda, which had accommodated over one hundred thousand civilians who refused to return to their villages out of fear of R.P.F. reprisals. According to Doctors Without Borders, the camp presented no military threat to Ka­ga­me’s regime, unlike some other camps, especially those in Zaire, which were rife with génocidaire militiamen clamoring to return to Rwanda to “finish the job” and exterminate the remaining Tutsis.

On April 22, 1995, the R.P.A., who had been encircling the Kibeho camp for days, preventing food from being provided, opened fire on the crowds, using assault rifles, machine guns, grenades, anti-­tank rockets, and a howitzer. The Doctors Without Borders international team and U.N. peacekeepers witnessed the shootings: “On our way to the second U.N.A.M.I.R. post,” one Australian soldier reported,

we had to walk through a crowd of people standing there calmly, terrorized. At one point, the only way to reach the post was down a lane that was lined with the dead and the dying; men, women and children, piled up three-­layers deep.

Kagame, Rwanda’s vice president at the time, visited the camp with President Pasteur Bizimungu. A few mass graves were opened and 338 corpses—­the official toll put forth by the Rwandan government—­were displayed for the cameras, though the U.N. peacekeepers and NGOs who had witnessed the massacre estimated the toll at between 4,000 and 8,000 dead. Forced to validate the official figure, the minister of the interior, Seth Sendashonga, soon went into exile, and he was later assassinated in Nairobi, Kenya. Kagame acknowledged his responsibility for that killing in veiled terms during a speech he gave in Gabiro, in northern Rwanda. Referring to a work by Prunier, who described a meeting in early 1998 between Sendashonga (who had been his friend) and Ugandan officials with an eye on preparing a coup d’état in Kigali, Kagame declared: “There’s some truth in what Prunier wrote. We knew what was taking place [in Uganda]. As to whether Seth Sendashonga died because he crossed the line, I don’t have much to say about that, but I’m not going to offer any apologies.”

In the collective psyche and official discourse, the current Rwandan president maintains a prestigious image: the hero who ended the last genocide of the twentieth century, while the international community at large, and the United States in particular, looked the other way. However, putting an end to the massacre of the Tutsi was never Kagame’s objective, and many Rwandan political and military leaders, such as the former prime minister Faustin Twagiramungu, accuse the president of sacrificing his own community to gain power.

Rony Brauman, the former president of Doctors Without Borders, and among the first to publish a work on the Rwandan genocide, insists that in 1994 Kagame “wanted to win the war, not end the genocide.” In fact, the R.P.F. argued relentlessly with the U.N. Security Council to impede the deployment of a peacekeeping force, claiming in particular as of late April 1994 that most of the Tutsis had already been massacred. The Canadian general Roméo Dallaire, commander of U.N.A.M.I.R., wrote in his memoirs:

Beyond a doubt, the responsibility for the Rwandan genocide lies exclusively with the Rwandans [i.e., the Hutu] who planned, commanded, supervised and then directed it. . . . But the Rwandan dead can also be attributed to Paul Kagame, the military genius who didn’t step up his campaign when the scale of the genocide was manifest and who, on several occasions, even spoke freely to me on the price his Tutsi comrades might have to pay for the cause.

Once installed in power, Kagame did not suddenly turn peaceful. In 1996, he set out to attack the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a country possessing the richest mineral resources in Africa. His army invaded this vast neighbor, with covert U.S. military assistance, ostensibly to fight the Hutu génocidaires who had retreated there. Kagame’s army joined forces with the militia of Laurent-­Désiré Kabila, the former Marxist guerrilla soldier who had trained alongside Che Guevara in the mid-­Sixties and was later involved in drug trafficking. Kabila was soon to replace the country’s leader, Marshal Mobutu, a former CIA protégé who had become a burden to the United States since the end of the Cold War. During this time, an estimated 232,000 Hutu refugees were murdered in the Congolese forest. Emma Bonino, the European commissioner for humanitarian aid, spoke of “incomprehensible carnage,” and accused Kabila’s troops—in reality commanded by Kagame’s army—of having “transformed the region into a slaughterhouse.”

In August 2010, the United Nations published an explosive 550-page report entitled Mapping Human Rights Violations that described the horrors committed in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in the period between 1993 and 2003, which was leaked to Le Monde. According to the newspaper, the Rwandan authorities had tried to prevent the publication of the report, with Kagame threatening to withdraw all Rwandan troops from U.N. peacekeeping missions. Participants from all sides of the conflict were implicated in war crimes, which notably included systematic rape, but Le Monde described the document as “particularly damning for Rwanda,” though Kagame did succeed in stopping the term “genocide” from being categorically ­applied to his ­army’s behavior.

This was essential for Kagame, because his moral authority stems from the 1994 genocide. Not only did it jus­tify his invasion of the D.R.C., but it continues to excuse all manner of repression at home. In 2008, Kagame passed a law that classified any references to crimes committed by the R.P.F. as a form of “genocide ideology” and therefore illegal. This law served as a basis for the incarceration, from 2010 to 2018, of Kagame’s political opponent Victoire Ingabire, who was guilty of having argued in favor of recognizing R.P.F. crimes as a way to achieve genuine reconciliation among the Rwandan people.

To fathom the absurdity of all this, listen to James Kabarebe, the former defense minister, who served in Uganda’s intelligence services before joining Kagame in the bloody conquest of Rwanda and later participated in the pillages and crimes against humanity in the Congo. In a documentary on the “glorious” epic of the R.P.F. he declared: “The principal problem of security in Rwanda is the genocide ideology, which has spread beyond Rwanda to the entire region and among the international community. Everything opposed to Rwanda is defined by this ideology of genocide. This ideology thus remains a threat. And this is a war we will have to wage for a long time.” Now Kagame’s special adviser, he affirmed during the twenty-­fifth anniversary commemoration of the genocide this past April that “the genocide ideology will always remain, because even some children who didn’t participate in it are born with this ideology.”

No one denies the Hutu extremists’ brutal attempt to annihilate the Tutsi minority in 1994. But Kagame and his lieutenants have succeeded in framing any acknowledgment of their own crimes as a further martyring of their ethnic community, equating the denunciation of crimes against humanity with the denial of a genocide. Whenever they are challenged, Kagame, his lieutenants, and many international supporters brandish the accusations of “racism” and “denialism.”

When prominent French investigative journalist Pierre Péan published Noires fureurs, blancs menteurs, his ­pioneering 2005 book on the R.P.F.’s crimes, the French association SOS Racisme filed a lawsuit, accusing him of “inciting racial hatred.” Testifying in court, Dominique Sopo, president of the association, solemnly declared, “To evoke Hutu blood is to defile the blood of the Tutsis.”

It is not just the specter of genocide that has given Kagame impunity. He has held on to international support for a more mundane and predictable reason: economics. Global leaders such as Clinton and Tony Blair celebrate Kagame as a “visionary,” largely because of the high rates of economic growth Rwanda has enjoyed under his watch. Never mind that the country remains one of the most unequal in the world—or that its development has been largely financed through the plunder of the neighboring D.R.C. and money provided by international funding partners such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund—businessmen marvel at its excellent commercial climate, not to mention the cleanliness and safety of its capital.

A few months before Kagame’s star turn courtside in California, a delegation from the N.B.A.—­including Commissioner Silver and Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri—visited Rwanda. On the occasion Ujiri, who is Ni­gerian and a noted Kagame fan, might have spoken for the entire global business community: “When you talk about progressive and visionary,” he said, “that is President Kagame.”

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