Rwanda’s contradictory relationship with Western powers

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Dr Sizo Nkala

Two recent controversial incidents have brought the curious case of Rwanda’s relationship with the West under the spotlight.

These two incidents symbolise Rwanda’s confusing and contradictory relationship with the West. On the one hand, the east African country’s government has been accused of abusing human rights through jailing or killing government critics both in Rwanda and abroad. Opposition activists are routinely jailed and silenced. The ruling party, the Rwandan Patriotic Front, has been in power since 1994 and is credited with ending the genocide that killed around 800 000 people and ensuring a stable Rwanda.

Kagame has been in power since 2000, and in 2017 his party engineered a constitutional amendment to allow him to stay in office for a third term. In other countries like Zimbabwe, repression of dissenting voices and changing constitutions to lengthen incumbency have been sufficient grounds for the West to label the country a pariah and impose targeted sanctions on it. Perhaps concerns with Kigali’s human rights record and authoritarian political system were the reason behind the non-invitation of Rwanda to the US-sponsored Summit for Democracy which is being co-hosted by Zambia. Kagame has on several occasions lambasted the West for interfering in the internal affairs of African countries and looking down on their political systems.

On the other hand, the West has been attracted to Rwanda and has maintained cordial relations with it for several reasons. First, Rwanda has been playing an instrumental role in peace and security in Africa through contributing its troops to peacekeeping missions that have been shunned by the West. Hence, barring its alleged role in fomenting a rebellion in the eastern region of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda is seen as making important contributions to regional stability.

Secondly, Rwanda’s political stability and Kagame’s secure leadership provide a conducive environment for Western investments. Western corporations such as Visa, Volkwagen and Starbucks, among others, have made significant investments in the country.

Therein may lie the rationale behind Kigali’s decision to accept the UK’s odd request to take in its illegal immigrants and accede to US pressure to release Rusesabagina. The West is doing a lot to prop up Rwanda’s economy, and hence it is in Rwanda’s interests to grant some concessions to keep the vital economic co-operation alive.

*Dr Sizo Nkala is a research fellow at the Centre for Africa-China Studies at the University of Johannesburg.