His grip on power is nearly unassailable. Since becoming president over two decades ago, he has extended constitutional term limits, shut down the free press and clamped down on dissent. Reporters have been driven into exile, even killed; opposition figures have been imprisoned or found dead. His country has been reduced to tyranny.
But this dictator isn’t a pariah, like Vladimir Putin of Russia or Bashar al-Assad of Syria. Instead, he’s one of the West’s best and most reliable friends: Paul Kagame, president of Rwanda. Since coming to power in 1994, Mr. Kagame has won his way into the West’s good graces. He’s been invited to speak — on human rights, no less — at universities such as Harvard, Yale and Oxford, and praised by prominent political leaders including Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and the former U.N. general secretary Ban Ki-moon.
It doesn’t end there. Mr. Kagame’s Western friends include FIFA, which held its annual congress at a shiny sports complex in Kigali in March, and the N.B.A., whose African Basketball League plays in Rwanda. Europe’s largest carmaker, Volkswagen, runs an assembly plant in Rwanda, and major international organizations such as the Gates Foundation and the World Economic Forum are close partners. Western donors finance a whopping 70 percent of Rwanda’s national budget.
But perhaps Mr. Kagame’s greatest endorsement is a deal with the British government to receive asylum seekers deported from Britain. This controversial bargain, which may contravene international law, has cemented Rwanda’s reputation as a steadfast partner of Western countries. Far from the authoritarian holdout it is, Mr. Kagame’s Rwanda is now hailed as a haven for people fleeing dictatorship.
Mr. Kagame owes much of his success to his skilled political rhetoric, an art form Rwandans call “ubwenge.” In news conferences where Rwandan journalists, aware of the risks faced by less pliant colleagues, throw him softball questions, Mr. Kagame shines. Often, his target is the West. He consistently voices an anti-imperialist message about how Europe is “violating people’s rights” and berates the West’s “superiority complex.”
This posture makes him a leading avatar of a new type of postcolonial ruler. Other populist nationalist presidents such as Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, Andrés Manuel López Obrador of Mexico and Narendra Modi of India also rally their populations behind similar sentiments, elevating themselves as world leaders no longer beholden to the West. Often at the heart of their defiant speeches are references to old crimes — massacres, genocides and expropriations committed by European empires that date back as far as the 16th century.
Such appeals work because Western leaders still offer only grudging “regrets” for such atrocities and rarely apologize, partly out of fear that their nations will have to cough up huge sums in reparations. This allows the grievances to live on. Many in former colonies still feel those past humiliations as viscerally present, manifest today in institutions that are dominated by Western interests, such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, or in international trade and aid negotiations. Postcolonial leaders such as Mr. Kagame find much popularity in their insistence that the West should atone for its history, however improbable that might be.
The price of avoiding apologies, though, is that Western leaders find their moral authority diminished. Instead, they engage in placatory behaviors — offering praise and partnership, rather than condemnation. Perhaps nowhere is this dynamic clearer than in Rwanda, where Mr. Kagame’s leverage with Western leaders is particularly strong because the country’s grievances are recent. He is very adept at guilt-tripping the West, and his jabs hit home hard.
Rwanda’s 1994 genocide — during which nearly one million Rwandans, many of them ethnic Tutsis, were killed — was perpetrated under the noses of United Nations peacekeepers, who diligently filed reports on the killings while seemingly impotent to prevent them. Although Mr. Kagame’s former ambassador to the United States and other political allies have accused him of “sparking” Rwanda’s genocide and doing little to prevent it, he has cast himself as the hero who ended it.
In the event of criticism, Mr. Kagame’s tried-and-tested tactic is to rebut any Western leader who has the temerity to sermonize to poorer nations about democracy, human rights and the rule of law. His rhetoric resonates in a world desperate for African success stories, not least in the West. Back in 2011, the journalist Tristan McConnell described how Western support for Mr. Kagame was driven by “a genuinely felt desire to fight the image of a basket-case continent.” The year after, Time magazine called Mr. Kagame “the embodiment of a new Africa.”
Behind the lionization lies a darker truth. Since taking power in 1994 as commander in chief of the Rwandan military, and later as president, Mr. Kagame has all but rigged elections, taking almost 99 percent of the vote in 2017. Many of his opponents have disappeared, in some cases found murdered, in one case virtually beheaded. The self-styled hero who supposedly ended the Rwandan genocide was also in command of an army that the U.N. has alleged was responsible for killing tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of Hutus and for potential acts of “genocide” after twice invading the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Yet no matter the historical record, Mr. Kagame creates an alternate reality in which the West is to blame for his country’s ills and he is its brave champion. This anti-imperialist narrative trumps reports of dissidents and journalists being harassed, imprisoned or forced into exile. It doesn’t help that accurate information about the country is hard to come by: Mr. Kagame bans critical foreign reporters, ensuring that the international media often repeats government propaganda.
The hunger for postcolonial leaders who stand up to the West is perfectly understandable, rooted in the ways that imperialism continues to structure relations between former colonies and former colonial powers. Justice for colonial-era crimes would be welcome to many in the world, too, even if it is unlikely to come anytime soon. At the very least, Western leaders — beginning in Britain — should do something simple and stop rewarding authoritarians like Mr. Kagame.