“You have made your country proud,” said Rwandan President Paul Kagame, posing for a photo with the local Patriots basketball team on Monday (31).
The day before, the team had ended its participation in an African tournament of the modality, promoted in collaboration with the powerful NBA, the American professional basketball league. He took fourth place among 12 teams on the continent.
Located in the center of Africa, with a territory equivalent to that of Alagoas, Rwanda was handpicked to host the first edition of the competition.
This was just another example of the international prestige of this small country of 12 million people, most associated with the 1994 genocide, in which between 800,000 and 1 million people died. It was the largest massacre of civilians since the Holocaust, proportionately.
Praised for its above-average African development rates, good infrastructure and low levels of corruption, the country has long been viewed in the West as a sort of “first-class student”. International leaders line up to take a photo with Kagame and generously donate their resources.
Recently, however, this positive agenda has rivaled a darker side of the country, where NGOs are harassed, political dissidents die under mysterious circumstances, the press is controlled, and the opposition finds no place to breathe.
Kagame, a former rebel leader who overthrew the regime responsible for the genocide, continued to rule the country unchallenged for 27 years.
When the basketball tournament was announced, senior NBA official Adam Silver was the subject of an open letter protesting the event being held in the country.
The author was Taciana Rusesabagina, who lives in exile in the United States. She is the wife of Paul Rusesabagina, who rose to fame for protecting ethnic Tutsi civilians during the genocide, a story told in the 2004 film “Hotel Rwanda”.
Critic of Kagame, he was arrested in 2020 for incitement to terrorism and is awaiting trial.
“We ask you, on behalf of our husband and father, as well as countless other victims of the regime, to reconsider your choice to host the tournament in Rwanda,” Taciana wrote.
She further urged the NBA leader “to put pressure on the Rwandan government to dramatically improve the treatment of other dissidents and its citizens in general”. However, there has been no change in the plans for the tournament.
There have also been recent protests against Rwanda’s choice to host the summit of the British Commonwealth, an entity that brings together 54 countries and is nominally headed by Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom. The event, which is believed to take place in June, has been postponed until next year due to Covid-19.
The pressure was added in March to a book published by British journalist Michela Wrong, specializing in African themes.
“Do Not Disturb” tells the story of the mysterious murder of the former intelligence chief of Kagame, who had become a critic, in a hotel in South Africa in 2014. The work, which had a big impact in the press international, mentions other abuses committed by the regime since the 1990s.
“Kagame still has over 95% of the vote, so the elections have lost their meaning. Diplomats have their emails monitored. And it is very difficult to know what Rwandans think about the regime, because if you go to a village to ask, no one will give you an honest answer, out of fear, ”Wrong said during a recent debate organized by the South African Institute of Foreign Affairs (SAIIA, its acronym in English).
Kagame, 63, was re-elected in 2017 for a third seven-year term with 98.79% of the vote. Before, he had been Minister of Defense and Vice President, but he was already the one who ruled the country.
SAIIA researcher Stephanie Wolters says there is a collective sense of guilt on the part of the international community for washing their hands during the genocide, and that it even affects judgment on the government.
“There was a predisposition to look away and not see the first signs of authoritarianism in the current regime. It took longer for the allies to react to this behavior, and it seems to be happening now, ”says Wolters, a policy specialist in Central Africa.
According to her, Rwanda is also perceived as an element of regional destabilization, in particular in relation to the Democratic Republic of Congo. The neighboring country is rich in minerals and suffers from armed groups sponsored by Kagame.
Internally, she says, the genocide is often used as a convenient pretext for the practice of repression.
“In Rwanda, there are things that cannot be said about the genocide. We can’t talk about ethnicities, for example. The government says this is necessary to avoid a repeat of the violence.
The biggest safe-conduct for Kagame is its economic performance, although accusations of data manipulation have surfaced.
Officially, the country has experienced an average annual growth of 7.2% over the past decade, according to the World Bank. The poverty rate fell from 77% in 2001 to 55% in 2017, thanks in large part to foreign aid.
Rwanda has hosted meetings of the African version of the World Economic Forum, has some of the continent’s most modern skyscrapers, is home to startups and an emerging tourist destination, with its endless hills, volcanic lakes and populated mountains. gorillas.
Kagame maintains good relations with international figures such as former US Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair and philanthropist Bill Gates.
Last month, French President Emmanuel Macron visited the country apologizing for his support for the majority Hutu regime which slaughtered the Tutsi minority during the genocide.
At the same time, the country occupies 156th place in the press freedom ranking of the NGO Reporters Without Borders and only scores 21 points out of 100 possible according to Freedom House criteria, being considered “not free”.
For Wolters, this reality is tolerated by many in the West. “There are those who believe that for some African countries to develop, you need a benevolent dictator,” she said.
Professor of economics at the University of Cape Town, Carlos Lopes has a more benevolent vision of Kagame, with whom he is in constant contact.
Born in Guinea Bissau, he is part of an African Union working group on institutional reforms on the continent led by the President of Rwanda.
“Kagame is a person who has enormous listening skills. He makes an extraordinary and unusual effort to listen to informed opinions. That’s not what I associate with an autocratic person, ”he says.
According to Lopes, the emphasis Western democracies have on individual freedoms does not apply to a country that suffered the trauma of genocide.
“Focusing on individualism would introduce a competitive democracy which is very good for Scandinavia, but less good for Rwanda after genocide. The situation in each country is very specific, ”he says.
The professor believes that international pressure will not cause real damage to the image of the country. “It doesn’t really have an impact. There is a race for world leaders to have Kagame in the picture. It represents the new Africa, ”he said.