Kagame, economic visionary or flawed hero

August 8, 2010 12:00 am

, KIGALI, Aug 8 – Paul Kagame, Rwanda\’s 52-year-old leader who looks set to get another term in the August 9 poll, is an economic visionary to his admirers and a despot who will brook no opposition to his detractors.

Described as "unapologetically authoritarian" by the writer Philip Gourevitch — who authored "We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families" — Kagame is referred to by many in his entourage as "the Boss".

All who know him recognise that Rwanda\’s president is a remarkable man, but the gap between detractors and fans is growing, with human rights defenders increasingly critical of his recent opposition crackdown and business gurus ever more vocal in their praise of his vision and achievements.

The lanky former rebel leader has turned Kigali, a town of two-storey shop fronts and modest tin-roofed dwellings, into a capital fit to host international conference delegates.

Kagame, a keen tennis player and football fan, counts among his admirers Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and Paul Farmer, the Harvard doctor who founded Partners in Health.

"He\’s someone who builds," a former advisor said.

Kagame was just 36 in 1994 when his Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) rebel army routed genocidal forces who had killed an estimated 800,000 people and he took power in Rwanda.

Officially at that time only vice president and defence minister, he was already the de facto leader of a nation with little in the way of natural resources and where everything had to be rebuilt.

Economists praise a man who aims to turn a land of subsistance farmers into a middle-income country by 2020.

"President Kagame believes that poverty is not just low incomes. Poverty destroys trust and tolerance for those who think differently; it destroys hopes and aspirations for a better life," said Michael Fairbanks of Social Equity Venture Fund (SEVEN), the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based body that promotes enterprise solutions to ending poverty.

Fairbanks serves on the Presidential Advisory Council, a body made up of unpaid foreigners prominent in various fields that advises Kagame on strategy.

Kagame, Fairbanks said, grasped "that poverty is caused by the exclusion from global networks of trade, investment, and learning."

Kagame\’s personality, like that of many RPF officials, was forged by growing up in exile. In 1960, when he was three, his aristocratic Tutsi family fled into exile in Uganda to escape pogroms.

There they were out of danger but suffered years of discrimation and persecution that nourished the dream of going back to the homeland they idealised.

After a spell in Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni\’s NRM (National Resistance Movement), where he served as intelligence chief, Kagame took over as leader of a small force of Rwandan exiles that had crossed back home with the intention of overthrowing the regime of Juvenal Habyarimana.

But Habyarimana\’s death in a plane crash triggered three months of genocide, which were ended by Kagame\’s rebels.

The only world leader known to have undergone military training both in the US and in Cuba, Kagame is criticised for being dictatorial.

"Kagame allows less political space and press freedom at home than Robert Mugabe does in Zimbabwe," The Economist charged recently.

Gerard Prunier, a French academic who admits his perception of Kagame and his RPF has grown markedly more negative, acknowledges the Rwandan leader\’s "intelligence and his ruthless determination" but says the second DR Congo war in 1998-2003 was a turning point.

"Before 1998 Kagame could count on almost unlimited sympathy from the international community, which felt guilty for its neglect during the genocide. Today, his moral credit has been seriously damaged by the horrors committed in the Congo during 1998-2003," writes Prunier.

Portraits show a thin man with a piercing gaze that cuts through rimless spectacles — what official biographer Stephen Kinzer calls a "stern aloof intensity". Critics say Kagame, the father of four children, does not like sharing the limelight.


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