x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Rwanda risks new regional conflict

The evidence that Paul Kagame has turned from national liberator to the new regional despot is now overwhelming.

Rwanda's 100 days of genocide in 1994, when ethnic Hutus murdered about 800,000 people, mostly minority Tutsis, became one of recent history's most well-known crimes against humanity. By contrast, the continuing conflict in the adjacent Democratic Republic of Congo, which has killed more than five million people, is often ignored.

Ignored, that is, except by its neighbours. On Tuesday, a confidential UN report blamed Rwanda and Uganda for supporting a rebel group known as M23 in the east of the DRC. Rwanda's defence minister, General James Kabarebe, is accused of giving direct orders to M23's commanders.

It is just the latest charge against Rwanda's President Paul Kagame and his government. Western powers initially welcomed Mr Kagame's accession to power. It was his Tutsi-dominated force that ended the crisis that western powers had impotently watched (indeed, France has been accused of aiding Hutu groups). Under Mr Kagame's watch, Rwanda has been called the greatest success story in Africa, with blistering 8 per cent economic growth and an impressive diversification of the economy.

So why meddle in its neighbour, which has suffered unceasing conflict since independence? The evidence that Mr Kagame has turned from national liberator to the new regional despot is now overwhelming. Critical journalists have been "disappeared" in the capital Kigali, opposition groups are prevented from effectively campaigning, and the country has been conducting military campaigns in the DRC and Uganda for years. Some of these manoeuvres have targeted Hutu groups linked to the 1994 bloodshed; M23 is accused of fighting for control of the DRC's rich and contested mineral resources.

The outside world has been slow to recognise that Rwanda's government no longer fits the saviour image that it once had, but Kigali is growing increasingly isolated. In July, Germany became the latest western country to suspend some aid. Britain, the Netherlands and the United States have already cut or suspended support as well.

In a country that has so much potential, this heavy-handed rule is all the more damaging. By destabilising the DRC, Mr Kagame keeps alive the prospect that prosperous Rwanda will again fall into ethnic conflict. Rwandans of all people should know the dangers of that policy.