For a slide show of Paul Kagame's rise to power, click here.
KIGALI, Rwanda — Despite years of credible accusations of repression and war crimes leveled at Rwanda, both within the country and abroad, the United States, Britain, and a host of Western governments have consistently looked the other way, showering this tiny central African country with aid, touting it as a paragon of post-conflict reform, and protecting it staunchly against criticism. The accusations have included killing tens of thousands of people in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, supporting violent rebellions in that country, illegally controlling Congo's lucrative mineral trade, and running an authoritarian regime that severely represses political opponents, journalists, and citizens in its own country.
But this summer, after a U.N. Group of Experts report accused Rwanda of aiding a Congolese rebel group, many of these same donors -- almost inexplicably, given the gravity of the accusations they were willing to overlook in the past -- have suddenly begun to ask tough questions of Rwanda's president, Paul Kagame. U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said, "We have deep concerns about Rwanda's support to the Congolese rebel group that goes by the name M23." A number of countries have gone as far as suspending aid to Rwanda, which, until recently, was a darling of the international development community.
The development community is heavily invested in Rwanda's success, providing over $1 billion annually in development assistance to this small country of 10 million people. To many, the country incarnates the hope that Africa will rise from its poverty. The government has reported an average 8.2 percent annual GDP growth rate over the last five years, even in the midst of the global financial crisis, and claims to have lifted 1 million people out of poverty during the same period. The World Bank unequivocally praises its progress on development. And Kagame -- along with Western governments -- has promoted a narrative of a country rising spectacularly from a horrific genocide in 1994, a shining example that foreign aid, if well managed, can indeed give poor countries a leg up.
But Kagame, who relies on Western aid for about half of his country's budget, has reason now to be alarmed. For weeks, his government has fended off the damning accusations, not wavering from its usual strategy of forcefully denying all criticism and claiming the evidence has been fabricated. Rwanda generally argues that the crimes it is accused of would be against its interests -- for instance, that a war on its border would hurt its own economic growth and development. But the old arguments seem to be no longer working for Kagame. While Western donors in the past seemed content to give the president the benefit of the doubt, it appears now that his staunchest friends no longer believe his repeated denials.
Kagame lashed out in late July, dismissing America's aid cut as stemming from ignorance and saying the international community -- once his unwavering ally -- has "twisted everything" and is not listening to him.
The U.S. government, Rwanda's staunchest ally and largest donor, began its surprising about-face with a July 22 announcement that it was suspending military aid to Rwanda. The amount of aid cut was minuscule -- only $200,000 -- and is unlikely to apply to the full extent of U.S. military support to Rwanda, which includes training Kagame's son at the West Point military academy, but analysts saw the announcement as deeply symbolic.
Obama's ambassador at large for war crimes, Stephen Rapp, then issued an astounding warning, reported on July 25 by Britain's Guardian newspaper, that Kagame could be charged with war crimes for "aiding and abetting" crimes against humanity in a neighboring country. The Dutch government followed by suspending aid to Rwanda. Britain -- one of Rwanda's largest donors and strongest allies, which had facilitated the country's entry to the Commonwealth -- did the same. Germany also held back payments, with Development Minister Dirk Niebel saying, "The suspension of aid is an unmistakable signal to the Rwandan government." Even the African Development Bank -- usually apolitical, and headed by a Rwandan, Donald Kaberuka, who is sometimes mentioned as Kagame's successor (the president, who has run Rwanda for almost two decades, insists he will step down in 2017) -- has been forced by its Scandinavian board members and India to suspend aid payments.