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Rwanda, Britain, and the Strange Case of General Karake (Politico Aug. 19, 2015)

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Why Does Europe Hound Rwanda – A self-reliant, tough, no-nonsense country is hard to patronize, perhaps?

Supporters of Rwandan General Karenzi Karake celebrate after he was granted bail | Getty

Travelers queuing at London’s Heathrow airport two months ago witnessed something peculiar: the very public arrest of Rwanda’s intelligence chief, Lt. Gen. Karenzi Karake, as he was leaving the country. It is extremely rare for government officials of such high rank to be taken into custody while traveling abroad, especially in the U.K.

Ministers from the most reviled rogue regimes routinely travel through London and other European capitals. What made this detention particularly bizarre is that Rwanda is a close British ally. Karake is a frequent visitor to the U.K. who had come to London specifically to meet with his counterparts in British Intelligence.


Rwanda's Intelligence chief, General Karenzi Karake

It was the Metropolitan Police that took him into custody. They did so on the basis of a European Arrest Warrant. That in itself was odd, as European Arrest Warrants are controversial in the U.K., where European standards of criminal justice are regarded as lower than those in Britain. Their execution is relatively rare. During the many times that Karake had visited London since the warrant was issued in 2008, there had never been any indication that U.K. authorities were inclined to take it seriously.

Rwanda under Kagame, probably the greatest development success story of Africa, has become a particular object of suspicion and dislike

Quite apart from the substance of the warrant, Rwanda and the U.K. have very close relations — Rwanda is a major recipient of British foreign aid, and its capital Kigali has been a regular destination for British prime ministers and cabinet members for more than a decade.

President Paul Kagame’s Rwanda is probably the greatest development success story of modern Africa, widely praised for its good roads, rapid economic growth, high literacy and minimal corruption. To U.K. politicians, and especially Prime Minister David Cameron, it has provided comforting evidence for the claim that the huge sums the U.K. spends on development aid can make a difference to African poverty.

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The charge against Karake is a serious one: war crimes. The general is one of 40 Rwandan officials indicted in 2008 by Fernando Andreu Merelles, a Spanish judge, causing considerable controversy at the time. The indicted Rwandans were not former members of the infamous Hutu Power regime or its Interahamwe militia that carried out the horrific 1994 genocide in that country. On the contrary, they were Tutsis, members of the ethnic group who were the victims of six weeks of slaughter that took almost a million lives. All were members of the predominantly Tutsi Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), the rebel force that overthrew the genocidaire regime and formed the subsequent government.

Andreu’s mass indictment had nothing to do with the genocide itself. It related to the revenge massacres of Hutus allegedly carried out by the Tutsi RPF during the war to overthrow the genocidaire regime, and cited later war crimes said to have been carried out by the Rwandan army when it sent troops into Congo to attack former Hutu regime elements based there.

People hold placards during a demonstration calling for the release of  Karake

Much of the information on which Andreu’s indictment relies came from left-leaning “humanitarian” NGOs with links to the FDLR, a Hutu organization founded by former genocidaires whose militia is based in Congo and has been labeled a terrorist organization by the U.S. government.

The organization is said to have had discreet support from France, which was a key ally and defender of the Hutu Power regime even after the genocide. (Paris actually sent troops to set up a sanctuary for the Hutu fighters who were the agents of that genocide — the notorious Operation Turquoise.)

A contemporary U.S. diplomatic cable published by Wikileaks quoted the U.S. ambassador to Rwanda saying the indictment was “outrageous and inaccurate,” and politically motivated.

The similar arrest in Germany in 2008 of a Rwandan official named Rose Kabuye — who was subsequently transferred to France for trial — resulted in embarrassment after a court held that there were no charges to answer.

None of this is to say that Kareke is innocent of all charges, still less that he is a good man, just that there is something fishy about his indictment.

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The fact that British police arrested Karake out of the blue baffled observers and enraged Rwanda. Some have even wondered if his arrest has to do with rivalry between the MI5 and MI6 intelligence agencies: Karake was in London to meet the latter but his arrest is likely to have been overseen by the former.

All too likely it has much to do with the way Rwanda under Kagame has become a particular object of suspicion and dislike for that part of the British establishment that takes its opinions from the Guardian.

Rwanda’s recovery after the horrors of the mid-1990s has been astonishing.

The Rwandan government’s undoubted restrictions on press freedom and authoritarian approach to political dissidence get considerably more attention than countries with much nastier, brutal kleptocratic dictatorships: Kagame’s push to change the Rwandan constitution to secure a third term in office has prompted rather more condemnation than similar efforts in Venezuela, Turkey, and Cuba; Rwanda’s intelligence agency is blamed for all kinds of dark and improbable achievements, in the manner of the CIA and Mossad; and the country gets far more than its fair share of blame for the chaos in neighboring Congo, violence that has resulted in at least a million deaths over the last decade.

So why do many activists, humanitarian NGOs and left-wing groups hate Paul Kagame and pay him so much more attention than, say, Equatorial Guinea’s monstrous kleptocrat Teodoro Obiang, Burkina Faso’s Blaise Compaoré or Cameroon’s Paul Biya?

As Central Africa researcher and writer Andrew Wallis puts it, “Paul Kagame is a love-hate figure — for many in the West there seems to be no way they can hold a neutral line on him or Rwanda. He’s the African leader of the moment, and he’s become an international figure of note.”

By most accounts Rwanda’s recovery after the horrors of the mid-1990s has been astonishing. As the New York Times’ Jeffrey Gettleman has written: Under Kagame, this small country “has made enormous strides fighting poverty, corruption and AIDS. The streets are safe. The street lights even work. It all adds up to a small miracle, especially remarkable because of Rwanda’s recent genocide, its overpopulation and its notable lack of resources.”

Gettleman characterized Rwanda as a “tough, suspicious, post-genocide Israel-like [country] whose national ethos, simply stated, was Never Again.”

These are not qualities that necessarily touch the hearts of people in the NGO world. You often hear people imply that the Rwandans ought by now to have abandoned their hostility to the international community, given that it’s been two decades since the genocide. To them, fact that Kagame and his regime have been so effective at re-building and maintaining ethnic peace all but implies that the bloodletting of the mid-1990s can’t really have been that bad.

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It is possible that if Rwanda were a failed or failing state like many other African autocracies and semi-democracies, rather than a thriving, remarkably efficient one, it might receive less hostile press, subject only to the limited scrutiny accorded countries like Guinea and Cameroon.

It may not have helped that while Kagame has welcomed and made good use of foreign aid, he persistently denounces Western paternalism and African dependency. His stated desire to make Rwanda into the Singapore of Africa and his admiration for the late Lee Kwan Yew’s benign dictatorship were never likely to make him popular with Western liberals.

But the turning point seems to have been Goma.

Goma, in what was then Zaire, was the center of a vast international humanitarian operation established to house and feed the Hutu Interahamwe militias and their families who fled Rwanda after the genocide-government was overthrown by the Tutsi RPF. The giant, chaotic refugee camps set up by hundreds of competing aid agencies quickly became a base for more murderous attacks. Neither the Mobutu government in Kinshasa nor the international community did anything to stop the raids. After two years, Kagame sent his army across the border, together with a force from Uganda, and stormed the camps. Ever since, Kagame’s regime has been an object of increasing loathing for Western liberals and much of the NGO world.

Goma was bad enough. But once Rwanda joined the various African nations routinely intervening in and ruthlessly exploiting the chaos in Congo, it started to be portrayed as a uniquely malign player.

Kagame’s regime has been an object of increasing loathing for Western liberals

The media often likes to portray Rwanda’s sponsorship of M23, one of the brutal, rapacious mini-armies taking part in Congo’s civil war, as somehow unique or the primary cause of Congo’s chaos. Neither is true. Burundi, Uganda, Angola, Zimbabwe and even far-off Chad and Namibia have all sent troops into Congo, either to attack rebels hiding in its forests or steal its mineral wealth, or both.

That doesn’t excuse all or even most of Rwanda’s actions, but it does make it easier to understand why the Tutsi RPF is so ruthless in defending its borders and so willing to use force to protect threatened Tutsi populations like the Banyamulenge of Congo. Nor is it surprising that a country ruled by the survivors of an attempt at extermination has little respect for those who ignored or even abetted that genocide, and shows contempt for their espousal of “international humanitarian law.”

Kagame’s internal authoritarianism may be justifiable, given the country’s potential for civil strife and the benefits that development is bringing about.

In any case, there is more to the anti-Kagame sentiment manifested by the Spanish warrant and Karake’s arrest in London than Rwanda’s restrictions on press freedom or its persecution of dissidents abroad.

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Five days after his arrest Karake was released on £1 million bail, thanks to the efforts of his lawyers — who include Cherie Booth, wife of former Prime Minister Tony Blair — but forbidden to leave the U.K. He was told he would be tried in September. Before any action could be taken by the Justice Ministry, the Westminster Magistrates Court dismissed his case.

According to press reports, the offenses specified in the warrant are not extraditable under U.K. law: In Spain you can be tried for war crimes committed abroad; in the U.K. you may not. And for a European Arrest Warrant to lead to extradition, the offense has to be triable in both the country where the indictment was made and the country of arrest. This should have been obvious right from the start. One murky and mysterious action by U.K. authorities has been followed by another.

You could be forgiven for thinking that something about Rwanda and its travails brings out the secretive, dishonest, hypocritical worst in European governments and officialdom, and not only in Paris, Brussels and Madrid.