Co-authored by Claude Gatebuke, Executive Director of African Great Lakes Action Network (AGLAN).
The United States' stance against Rwanda ending term limits in time for President Paul Kagame to seek a third election and perpetuate his repressive regime in Kigali is a welcome step in the right direction, but it mustn't end there. This move must be followed next by the withholding of non-humanitarian aid. American taxpayers contribute nearly $200 million annually in the form of aid to the Rwandan government. This aid has been flowing for nearly two decades now in spite of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) government in Rwanda using major resources -- with US aid being an enabler -- to invade and destabilize neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to the tune of over six million victims, the majority being children under the age of five.
On September 4, 2015, John Kerry's State Department expressed "concern" over the plan in motion in Rwanda to change its constitution in order to allow Kagame to remain in power beyond his current second and final term as president. In usual RPF and Kagame style, ordinary Rwandans were coerced into signing petitions asking for Parliament to amend the constitution and remove presidential term limits for Kagame and any other future presidents. Many of the signatories admitted to being illiterate, and a large number of them are not sure exactly what they signed for, as various interviews show. The US State Department in its statement affirmed, "We continue to firmly support the principle of democratic transition of power in all countries through free, fair, and credible elections, held in accordance with constitutions, including provisions regarding term limits. We do not support those in positions of power changing constitutions solely for their political self-interest."
The State Department also highlighted President Barack Obama's similar statement that he made during his July address to the African Union in Ethiopia, "When a leader tries to change the rules in the middle of the game just to stay in office, it risks instability and strife -- as we've seen in Burundi. And this is often just a first step down a perilous path," Obama said.
With the elimination of term limits and an election victory in 2017, Kagame stands to gain not only more power but also continued protection from international justice. His record both in Rwanda starting in 1990 and in the DRC starting in 1996 is a long string of massacres, extermination, ethnic cleansing and even genocide, according to the UN Mapping Exercise report of October 1, 2010. However, he has continually benefited from presidential immunity from criminal and civil prosecution. A sign of what is to come for President Kagame, should he step down from power/presidency, is the recent arrest in the UK of one of his henchmen, Rwanda's intelligence leader Gen. Karenzi Karake, and the trial of another at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, Netherlands. Gen. Karenzi Karake spent almost two months in detention in London before he was released on a legal technicality to return to Rwanda. The arrest warrant issued by a judge in Spain was for crimes committed by the RPF and specifically commanded by Karenzi Karake, including massacres, war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide in Rwanda and the DRC. Another one of the RPF and Kagame's henchmen, Bosco Ntaganda, also notoriously known as "the Terminator" in the DRC, is on trial at the ICC for his war crimes in the DRC. Kagame is desperate to avoid accountability for the atrocities in the region, and having the presidential title protects him.
From the US taxpayers' perspective, it makes no sense for our tax dollars to be sent to a government led by a criminal organization such as the RPF that is accused of committing genocide and mass atrocities in the region. It makes no sense because while American taxpayers are generous, they understand that when you give resources to criminals, they commit more crimes. Americans understand that their money should not be used to contribute to governments that destroy the lives of innocent human beings.
This public stance by the US government critical of the regime in Rwanda is rare and in many ways significant. The US has traditionally provided financial, military, diplomatic and political support to Paul Kagame and his regime. The rest of the world, waiting for the US to move, has stood by and watched the regime invade and destroy its neighbors; jail, kill and abduct its opponents; and suspend independent newspapers and jail reporters. Any dissenting voices are met with violence. In fact, the US Department of State report on Rwanda released on June 15, 2015, stated the following:
"Other major human rights problems included arbitrary or unlawful killings, torture, harsh conditions in prisons and detention centers, arbitrary arrest, prolonged pretrial detention, and government infringement on citizens' privacy rights. The government restricted freedoms of speech, press, assembly, and association."
As a global leader, when the US takes a stance, the rest of the world follows. A recent example is that when the US withheld a symbolic $200,000 in military support to the Rwandan government because of Rwanda's support of the M23 militia, numerous other governments followed suit and withheld or suspended their financial support to the Rwandan government. The result was that such a move led to the defeat of the M23 militia, who had created a humanitarian crisis with nearly a million refugees in the space of months, and an end to that rebellion. The withholding of aid is especially key, given that 40 percent of Rwanda's budget depends on foreign aid and the US is second only to the UK in the amount of aid sent to Rwanda.
It is also important for the US to use its leadership, influence and leverage to push for the release of jailed opponents Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza and Deo Mushayidi, who are languishing in prison for simply challenging Kagame in the previous elections. These leaders can provide alternative choices for Rwandans in the 2017 election.
Let us hope that the rest of the world will oppose a constitutional crisis sparked by a self-serving president who has chosen a perilous path for Rwanda.
Claude Gatebuke is a Rwandan war and genocide survivor. He is the executive director and co-founder of the African Great Lakes Action Network. Claude is a human rights advocate who regularly speaks in various parts of the world as well as appear on national and international media. He can be reached via email at email@example.com. Visit AGLAN on the web at www.aglan.org, and follow us on Facebook at the African Great Lakes Action Network (AGLAN) page and on Twitter @AGLANglr.
Alice Gatebuke is a Rwandan genocide and war survivor, Cornell University graduate, and a human rights advocate. She serves as the communications Director for AGLAN. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.