15 Jul 2010

Rwanda: crescendo of intimidation

When a missing Rwandan politician turns up dead, his head partially severed by a machete blow, Rwandans shudder, writes Jonathan Miller

Rwanda’s been widely praised for the rapid recovery made from the genocide, 16 years ago, when ethnic Hutu militia butchered 800,000 members of the Tutsi minority in just over 12 weeks. Since then, it’s become what in aid circles they call a “donor darling”. This year, Britain is giving nearly half as much to the small central African country as it is to Afghanistan, writes Jonathan Miller.

But when a missing politician turns up dead, his head partially severed by a machete blow, Rwandans shudder. It has a grim resonance in a country where there’s been a crescendo of intimidation and harassment in the run-up to a presidential election next month, which the incumbent, Paul Kagame is expected to win.

The bloodied body of Andre Kagwa Rwisereka, vice president of the Democratic Green Party, was found this morning along with the machete used to kill him, police said. His murder follows the killing of a journalist in June, shot dead outside his home after writing a story linking President Kagame’s security services to an attempted murder of a dissident army general, once one of the President’s closest confidantes.

“This is not just a temporary spike, though,” Carina Tertsakian of Human Rights Watch just told me. “There’s been a steady intensification of intimidation in recent months. The government is unable to tolerate criticism; there are constant violations of freedom of expression, there is no democratic space. People are terrified.”

Ms Tertsakian does not expect to see a huge explosion of violence along Tutsi-Hutu ethnic lines. This crackdown is what she describes as “classic repression” and it comes as a result of divisions within the government and in the army. There are many Tutsis who feel that President Kagame is becoming increasingly despotic.

Ironically, while researching the latest pictures of the president, the most recent we could find were of him sitting beside Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe in Kinshasa at the end of last month.

This day last week, a Rwandan newspaper editor, Agnes Uwimana, was arrested on charges of genocide denial and stirring ethnic hatred. She had written an article comparing President Kagame to Hitler. The authorities were accused by human rights groups of invoking national security concerns to silence a dissenting voice. Ms Uwimana has already served a year in jail for the same offence.

President Kagame’s stifling of political rivals and his intolerance of dissent has already caused the United States, a staunch ally, to register its concerns.

Britain has supported Rwanda’s accession, last November, to Commonwealth membership, and the Department for International Development is this year giving Rwanda £70.1 million in aid. DfID likes to suggest that this represents “good value for money”.

A quarter of this aid goes into projects promoting good governance – and one of the recipient institutions was, until the end of last year, Rwanda’s Media High Council. Having received lots of British money, the Media High Council ordered the suspension of two independent newspapers, accusing them of inciting public disorder and “ethnic divisionism”. DfID told us tonight they wouldn’t be getting any more funding.

Tonight, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, in a statement to Channel 4 News, said it was “deeply concerned about recent events in Rwanda” and would “continue to follow developments in Rwanda closely.”

Commentators are already suggesting that it’s time to reconsider Rwanda’s diplomatic blank cheque. Paul Kagame is in apparent transition from being a strong leader to becoming authoritarian and autocratic, muzzling the media and refusing to allow genuine opposition parties to register for the 9 August election.

“This really is all very worrying,” says Carina Tertsakian. “We haven’t seen anything like this for more than a decade. There is no democracy to speak of in Rwanda. And the tensions are building.”