September 18, 2023
From Internationalist 360

Owen Schalk
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau meets with Rwandan President Paul Kagame on the margins of the G7 Summit in Biarritz, France, August 2019. Photo courtesy the Prime Minister’s Office.

Rwandan President Paul Kagame is notorious for being one of Africa’s most repressive and blood-stained dictators

For three decades, Rwanda has been ruled by Paul Kagame of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), first as a powerful vice president, then as president. The country is a one-party state where the RPF retains its grip on power by banning and sometimes violently targeting opposition parties and engaging in electoral fraud.

The RPF has rigged three presidential elections in Kagame’s favour: in 2003, 2010, and 2017. Each time, Kagame was granted close to 100 percent of the vote. Many government critics abroad have died under suspicious circumstances, and Rwandan opposition activists live in fear of arrest or assassination.

Under Kagame, Rwanda has sown regional instability, backing the M23 rebel movement in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). After a devastating offensive in 2012, the M23 withdrew from occupied territories amidst international pressure and lay dormant for about ten years. Then, in 2021, the rebel group launched another offensive that has displaced almost one million people and occupied large chunks of Congolese territory. Displaced Congolese sleep on the streets or crowd cholera-stricken refugee camps. The United Nations claims that a record $2.25 billion in aid is required to stem the crisis.

Kagame both denies Rwandan support for M23, but also states that this support is a necessary policy given the presence of the Hutu-led Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) in eastern Congo. Kagame’s RPF is led by Tutsis, the ethnic group targeted by Hutu extremists during the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

However, the Rwandan government has material interests in the DRC that go beyond squashing the FDLR. The DRC is bursting with lucrative mineral resources, and in the chaos that followed the removal of Mobutu Sese Seko from Kinshasa in 1997, many rebel groups and their foreign backers have competed for control over mine sites. Rwanda, for its part, has profited from the illegal mining and smuggling of gold, tin, coltan, diamonds, and tungsten.

In Foreign Affairs, Michela Wrong writes:

The FDLR has long been a scapegoat for Rwanda, blamed whenever Rwandan interference in Congo draws criticism… [Kagame] has been playing the FDLR card incessantly of late, prompting Rwandan officials, civil society organizations, and survivors’ groups in the diaspora to pick up the refrain that a second genocide is imminent… Aside from Kagame loyalists, however, almost no one buys this tired line. Rwanda’s unacknowledged exploits in Congo have long since ceased to be about self-defense or even revenge. They are intended, instead, to assert hegemonic dominance over Rwanda’s neighbors and guarantee access to the natural resources of a vast region that has been only fitfully governed since President Mobutu Sese Seko fled into exile in 1997.

Wrong also points to increased economic and military collaboration between Kinshasa and the Ugandan government of Yoweri Museveni as a potential trigger for the M23 offensive.

Some Western powers have called on Rwanda to cease its support for M23 encroachments in the DRC, but they have taken little material action to stop the offensive. This is despite the UN’s December 2022 confirmation that the Rwandan government is conducting “direct interventions” in Congolese territory.

Citing aerial footage along with photographic and video evidence, UN experts described a sophisticated rebel force boasting mortars, machine guns, and long-range firepower thought to be provided by Kigali. Its fighters move in organized columns of 500 militants, sporting helmets, Kevlar jackets, backpacks, and uniforms identical to those used by the Rwandan army. Bintou Keita, the special representative of the UN secretary-general in Congo, told the UN Security Council in June 2022 that the M23 “has behaved more and more like a conventional army rather than an armed group.”

During the offensive, M23 has committed mass rapes, mass executions, and recruited child soldiers. Nevertheless, France and the United Kingdom remain committed backers of Kagame. The UK in particular backs Kagame because of the Conservative government’s policy of sending asylum seekers to Rwanda for processing.

The Rwandan government also enjoys the dedicated support of Ottawa. The Canadian government provides the ruling RPF with millions in aid, and Justin Trudeau is regularly photographed chumming it up with Kagame. Canadian officials routinely visit the Rwandan capital of Kigali, while RPF officials often come to Ottawa. Inevitably, the respective government representatives celebrate the strong bilateral relationship between Canada and Kagame’s Rwanda.

In 2017, after Kagame won the presidential election with almost 99 percent of the vote, Canada’s High Commissioner Sara Hradecky tweeted, “congratulations to Rwandans for voting in peaceful presidential election[s]” and “Canada congratulates Paul Kagame on his inauguration today as President of Rwanda.” In the period of 2020-2021, Ottawa sent about $39 million in assistance to Rwanda, and the Government of Canada website proudly asserts that Ottawa and Kigali “work closely in multilateral fora” including the Commonwealth of Nations, La Francophonie, the UN, UNESCO, and the World Trade Organization.

Amidst Rwanda’s direct interventions in the DRC, Canada opened an embassy in Kigali not to pressure Kagame to pull back, but to “combat Russian influence in the region.”

While Trudeau and his government repeat all kinds of hostile statements against official enemy states, the prime minister never utters a critical word about Rwanda. The nature of Kagame’s rule, however, is no secret. Canadian journalist Geoffrey York paints the following picture:

Village informers… Re-education camps. Networks of spies on the streets. Routine surveillance of the entire population. The crushing of the independent media and all political opposition. A ruler who changes the constitution to extend his power after ruling for two decades… this is the African nation of Rwanda—a long-time favourite of Western governments and a major beneficiary of millions of dollars in Canadian government support.

When the UN released its report on Rwanda’s military presence in the Congo and support for M23, which has engaged in mass rapes and summary executions of civilians, the US and the European Union publicly condemned Kigali’s actions. Canada said nothing about the report.

While it would be ridiculous for anyone in Ottawa to claim ignorance of the Rwandan government’s abuses, recently obtained documents show that behind closed doors, Canadian officials speak quite openly about the nature of Kagame’s rule.

In July of this year, the federal government approved $19.1 million in funding for the Dallaire Institute for Children, Peace and Security, an organization whose stated goal is to end the recruitment of child soldiers. The institute was founded by Romeo Dallaire, a retired Canadian lieutenant-general who served as UN force commander during the Rwandan genocide of 1994. In his 2003 book Shake Hands With the Devil, Dallaire praised Kagame as an “extraordinary man.”

While discussing increasing funding for the Dallaire Institute, a Global Affairs memo expressed concerns about its “close partnership” with the Rwandan military, which supports M23. M23 has been documented to recruit and use child soldiers.

The Dallaire Institute’s African Centre of Excellence for Children, Peace, and Security is the organization’s main training centre in Africa. It is based in Rwanda. The institute has signed training agreements with the Rwandan military.

The Global Affairs memo notes that, according to UN evidence, M23’s recruitment efforts have engaged in the “targeting of youth and children.” Despite these internal concerns, though, the federal government approved the $19 million in funding for the Dallaire Institute.

Two weeks after greenlighting the funds, then Minister of International Development Harjit Sajjan flew to Rwanda and met with Kagame to “advance development goals in Africa.” This, too, occurred despite concerns in Ottawa. Geoffrey York reports: “A federal official said Global Affairs had suggested that Mr. Sajjan should refrain from meeting with Mr. Kagame, as a sign of Canadian concern over the UN report and Rwanda’s support for the M23 rebels, but the minister went ahead with the meeting anyway.”

York adds: “Some diplomats in Global Affairs have been perplexed by the federal government’s strong support for the Kagame government, which contradicts Canada’s human-rights principles, the official said, adding that the diplomats would prefer a more balanced approach to Rwanda and the DRC.”

Canada’s support for the Kagame government has been even more uncritical than the US and European powers. Following the release of the UN report, Ottawa didn’t even feign concern, and in fact increased funding to an organization with well-known ties to the Rwandan military. This despite the fact that officials in Global Affairs are worried Canada’s closeness with Kagame will tarnish the country’s global image.

Kagame is notorious for being one of Africa’s most repressive and blood-stained dictators. Ottawa’s seemingly unconditional support for him is further evidence of the emptiness of Canadian rhetoric on democracy and human rights.

Owen Schalk is a writer from rural Manitoba. He is the author of Canada in Afghanistan: A story of military, diplomatic, political and media failure, 2003-2023.