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Portrait of Paul Kagame

Philipp Sandner / guApril 4, 2014

20 years ago, rebels led by Paul Kagame put an end to the genocide in Rwanda. Today he is the president of a country enjoying rapid economic growth. But Kagame still sees himself at war. He will not tolerate opposition.

Ruandas Präsident Paul Kagame speaks at an international aid forum on Nov. 30, 2011.
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

The economy in the Rwandan capital, Kigali, is flourishing. Large construction sites throughout the city center are visible and audible signs of the dynamic development of this small African country, which only 20 years ago was the scene of a brutal civil war and genocide.

Everything is neat and orderly. Nowhere is there any trash lying around. There is no dirt or plastic being blown through the streets by the wind. In fact, plastic bags have been banned in the country ruled by Paul Kagame.

Kagame is the architect of Rwanda's impressive economic upturn and, at least in the early years of his presidency, a welcome partner for Western donor countries. "A man of action," very much to the liking of former US President George W. Bush, for example, who said he appreciated Kagame's commitment to education and his understanding that the best way to achieve development was to welcome private investors. Germany's former president Horst Köhler praised Kagame's pursuit of technological progress. "Those are ambitious plans that point in the right direction," Köhler said.

At least equally confident of his policies is Kagame himself. Ahead of the 2010 presidential election, for example, he declared that he could see no reason why he should not win. And indeed, the general who put an end to the 1994 genocide had no serious opponents to fear when he was re-elected in 2003 and 2010. Several promising rival candidates were not allowed to enter the race. Others died under mysterious circumstances. No one has been able to prove any government involvement. But in general Kagame makes no secret of his attitude toward democracy. "There is no doubt that we face many problems in Africa, and the biggest one of all is not the lack of democracy but poverty, and the dependence that comes with underdevelopment," Kagame once said.

Supporters of Paul Kagame holding a campaign rally in 2010. EPA/CHARLES SHOEMAKER
Supporters of Kagame in the 2010 elections had no fear of rival candidatesImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Success of a Rwandan exile

Kagame's vision for Rwanda is that of a displaced person. When he was a young boy, he and his mother fled into neighboring Uganda shortly before Rwanda gained independence in 1962. As members of the Tutsi ruling class, which had been privileged in the Belgian colony, they feared the revenge of the Hutu majority. Indeed, the early 1960s saw several waves of violence against Tutsis, many of whom fled the country.

Growing up in the impoverished surroundings of Ugandan refugee camps, the lean adolescent developed a strong sense of justice and a great deal of ambition. As a young man he initially joined Yoweri Museveni's rebellion in Uganda and participated in the toppling of the dictator Milton Obote. Museveni became president and Kagame was promoted to the position of head of military intelligence.

Other Rwandan refugees also rose to important positions under Museveni. Together they founded the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), which used guerilla tactics to try to weaken the regime in Rwanda.

A man is standing in front of a traditional Rwandan gacaca court.
The investigation of the genocide and the restoration of justice dragged on for decadesImage: CC--NC-BY-elisa finocchiaro

Then came the genocide. A Rwandan Hutu elite incited hostility toward the Tutsi minority. Soldiers and civilians murdered, looted and raped for three months in the spring of 1994.

The RPF's time had come. Drilled by Kagame and professionally trained in Uganda, they prepared to strike. While the international community failed to act and even the UN peacekeepers on the ground looked on helplessly, Kagame moved swiftly. In July the RPF took Kigali, and the government fled to what was then Zaire and is now the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Fear of threats from outside the country

Kagame has been in firm control of the country ever since. First he became vice president and defense minister, but observers agree that Pasteur Bizimungu, who was president from 1994 to 2000, was actually just a puppet. After Bizimungu resigned, Kagame himself became head of state. With international help, he invested in education and infrastructure. Rwanda was one of the most stable countries in the region, Kagame told DW in 2008, adding enthusiastically that in less than 15 years after the genocide, reconciliation had succeeded in his country.

DRC President Joseph Kabila and Paul Kagame are at a 30 July 2002 meeting in Pretoria. Photo: dpa
Talks with the president of the DRC, Joseph Kabila, often required mediatorsImage: picture-alliance/dpa

But there is one thing that is still worrying the president: the possibility that the Hutus in neighboring Congo, among them perpetrators of the genocide and their descendants, could one day strike back and take over Rwanda. That is how he repeatedly justified the presence of Rwandan soldiers in Congo.

Despite a peace agreement between Rwanda and the DRC in 2002, the underlying conflict remains unresolved. Rwanda had withdrawn its troops from Congo, Kagame said in 2004, but the other side of the problem was still there, namely the militias and former Rwandan soldiers in Congo.

'A matter of time'

It remains unclear how far Kagame's power reaches beyond his country's borders today. In the Tutsi-led M23 rebel movement, which terrorized eastern Congo in 2012 and 2013, international observers saw indications of an involvement of the Rwandan government, even though the government vehemently denied this.

Rwanda's former intelligence chief Patrick Karegeya, whom Kagame accused of treason, was found strangled in a South African hotel on New Year's Day 2014. So far there is no trace of the killer. But shortly after news of the murder broke, Kagame made a public threat that many consider to be a clearer indication than any proof. "You can't betray Rwanda and not get punished for it," Kagame said. "Anyone, even those still alive, will reap the consequences. It's only a matter of time."