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Canada’s whitewashing of Africa’s most ruthless regime

Rever: We should not be engaging with, or buttressing a nation that has inflicted so much harm on innocent people

AfricaHuman Rights

Rwandan President Paul Kagame poses for a picture with Robert Marawa and Masai Ujiri, right, at the NBA Africa Summit in Toronto, February 13, 2016. Photo from Flickr.

The use of celebrities, sports and big money to whitewash criminal regimes is a global phenomenon. Dictators count on political summits, concerts, tournaments, environmental initiatives and other large investments to launder and legitimize their reputations. At its core, whitewashing is about buying influence and control, in thinly veiled ways. But no amount of cash or star power could ever fully wash away the stains of repression, murder and poverty in a country like Rwanda.

Rwanda’s leader, Paul Kagame, presides over a police state, having crushed all forms of dissent and waged a near three-decade war in neighbouring Congo, where millions of people have died. Kagame’s brand of necropolitics has deeply traumatized Central Africa and yet Western elites, in particular Canadians, continue to foster close ties with him. In 2021, the president of the Toronto Raptors basketball team, Masai Ujiri, was personally awarded 2.4 hectares (nearly six acres) of land in the capital, Kigali, via a presidential order. Ujiri, one of Kagame’s closest friends, helped set up the Basketball African League (BAL), a premier men’s league on the African continent. The land Ujiri now owns in the tiny landlocked nation is part of an urban development project in the Rwandan capital known as Zaria Court that will feature a boutique hotel, upscale restaurants, a rooftop lounge and gym, “wellness spaces” and a podcast studio.

The project broke ground in 2023 amid much fanfare but deserves close scrutiny. Quite apart from the fact that land scarcity in Rwanda was a contextual precursor of genocidal violence in 1994, the vast majority of Rwandans suffer from grinding poverty and can’t afford a dirty martini on a fancy terrace. Only 57 percent of Rwandans have access to clean drinking water within 30 minutes of their homes and 31 percent of the population is undernourished. On average, one in three children under five years old is stunted. The rate of stunting rises to 44 and 50 percent in two districts in northern and western Rwanda. A number of villagers in eastern Rwanda told journalists in 2017 that they did not know what they were going to eat the following day.

Zaria Court has received financing from Helios Fairfax Partners, a Canadian company whose independent directors include Ujiri himself and Romeo Dallaire, who was the commander of UN peacekeeping forces in Rwanda in 1994. Helios Fairfax manages more than $3 billion in assets and investments in Africa. Part of the financing of this project is being funnelled through Helios Fairfax’s wholly-owned subsidiary, Helios Sports & Entertainment. The company is also an investor in the NBA Africa and BAL, which counts Barack Obama as a strategic advisor. The African league is nevertheless facing mounting financial losses on a continent whose favourite sport is soccer, not basketball.

While Zaria Court will include soccer pitches as part of its green space, it’s hard to imagine how ordinary Rwandans will benefit from what appears to be another glitzy urban project for Rwanda’s privileged class and their wealthy international friends. If anything, the real estate venture is another example of the insensitivity of elites and their disconnection from reality. In 2022, in a neighbourhood in northern Kigali, soldiers and police used force to evict hundreds of families; impoverished dwellers from the Kangondo slum salvaged whatever they could, grabbing bricks, tin sheets, furniture and other belongings as bulldozers razed their homes. A Rwandan journalist who reported on these evictions was John Ntwali, the former editor of The Chronicles newspaper and the founder of a YouTube channel, Pax TV - IREME News. Ntwali was a rare voice for the oppressed in a country that has silenced, jailed or killed countless journalists and other human rights activists. Ntwali had endured years of threats, arrests and imprisonment before being killed in a suspicious road accident in January 2023. His death triggered an international outcry and led to one of the most startling investigations into Kagame’s brutality, undertaken by a consortium of 50 journalists working for 17 media outlets from 11 different countries. The Forbidden Stories’ investigation, entitled “Rwanda Classified,” revealed how Rwanda uses assassination, intimidation and surveillance technology to silence critics at home and abroad, and how it employs a network of Western lobbyists to play a smoke and mirrors game, while casting Kagame as an agent of modernity.

Prior to his death, Ntwali was also investigating, along with Rwandan journalist Samuel Baker Byansi, the deaths of Rwandan soldiers on Congolese soil. Over the last two years, the Rwandan army has steered an ugly rebellion that has killed civilians and uprooted an estimated 1.7 million Congolese in the eastern borderlands with Rwanda. In their latest report to the UN Security Council, investigators revealed that as many as 4,000 Rwandan soldiers were engaged in combat operations in Congo, in support of the M23 rebels, and have made substantial territorial gains over the last several months. The United Nations investigators said that Rwanda has violated Congo’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, in addition to breaching an UN arms embargo. The report also revealed extensive recruitment and training of adult males, adolescents and children, by the Rwandan military and their rebel allies.

For decades now, the UN has assiduously documented Rwandan crimes in Congo, including the abduction and recruitment of children by Rwanda to fight proxy wars. The evidence is staggering and should give Romeo Dallaire pause, or at least convince him to take distance from the regime. Instead Dallaire has chosen to engage with a government whose president should be tried by the International Criminal Court. Dallaire’s actions go beyond whitewashing a criminal, militaristic regime. The Dallaire Institute, which was ostensibly set up to combat the use of child soldiers in Africa, has established its main African training centre in Kigali—the African Centre of Excellence for Children, Peace and Security. The institute now provides millions of dollars from the Canadian government to an army that is systematically violating international law.

Dallaire himself has long been a patron of Kagame’s ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), and has been willing to stand beside its senior commanders who have been accused of war crimes, including former defence chiefs James Kabarebe and Patrick Nyamvumba. Nyamvumba was accused by his own RPF comrades of organizing killings in the 1990s; their detailed testimony was given to a UN war crimes court. Kabarebe, for his part, was indicted by Spain in 2008, along with 39 other RPF officers, on charges of genocide, crimes against humanity and other war crimes. In 2006, a French judge issued arrest warrants against Kabarebe and several other senior RPF commanders, in connection with the assassination of Hutu president Juvenal Habyarimana in 1994, an act that unleashed the Rwandan genocide. In 2010, the UN released the Mapping Report which indicated that Kagame’s troops may have committed genocide against Hutu civilians in Congo in 1996-97. Kabarebe is named in the Mapping Report because he commanded Rwandan Tutsi troops that slaughtered refugees and Congolese civilians before toppling the then president, Mobutu Sese Seko.

Despite the evidence, Dallaire has doubled down by remaining close to Kagame and seeing fit that Kabarebe attend a UN peacekeeping conference that he helped organize in Vancouver in 2017. In an interview with the newspaper La Presse, Dallaire defended Kabarebe’s presence at the event, and his relationship with him. The journalist evoked a previous UN investigation in 2012 on the Rwandan-backed M23 militia, which was accused of recruiting child soldiers. Dallaire insisted that Rwanda’s usefulness in peacekeeping and in curbing child soldiers was more important than “past allegations.” Kigali is the fourth-biggest contributor to peacekeeping among UN countries. “I am ready to discuss with an individual like that (such as Kabarebe), more than others,” he said in the interview.

Dallaire’s doublespeak—suggesting that an army that has systematically abducted children and forced them to wage war deserves training and funding from the Canadian government—is particularly contemptuous of the Congolese. Since the first Rwandan invasion of Congo in 1996, Kagame has been considered a pyromaniac who has set the region on fire. There is as yet no indication that Kagame has any interest in putting out the flames.

Spain gutted its universal jurisdiction laws in 2015 so the arrest warrants against Kabarebe and other RPF officials are no longer in effect. France withdrew its arrest warrants against Rwandan military officials and closed its investigation into the downing of Habyarimana’s plane in 1994, in a bid to repair ties with Kigali. France is now relying on an estimated 4,500 Rwandan troops and police in Mozambique to protect a $20 billion natural gas project owned by TotalEnergies, against Islamic insurgents.

But these geopolitical manoeuvres cannot sanitize history or justify Rwanda’s invasion of Congo, which under the Rome Statute is a clear crime of aggression constituting “one of the most serious crimes of concern to the international community.”

Canada’s actions have been even more brazen and immoral. Two years ago, when Rwandan forces and their rebel allies launched a series of attacks in Congo’s northern Kivu province, Justin Trudeau’s government decided to strengthen bilateral relations with Kagame and open a High Commission in Kigali in order to fight Russian and Chinese influence.

“Yes, we know that Russia is present on the continent. Yes, we know that China is increasingly present also on the continent. We can’t be naive,” Foreign Minister Mélanie Joly told reporters in Kigali at a conference of Commonwealth nations. “We need to make sure that we have the diplomats on the ground with eyes and ears listening to what’s going on, to make sure that we can play a positive role with Rwanda and the entire region.”

Using an African country as a political and economic tool is as old as colonialism itself. If this is what Canada’s new politics are on the African continent, it is indeed retrograde. Canada should not be engaging with, or buttressing a nation that has inflicted so much harm on innocent people. We should not be aiding and abetting crimes abroad.

Judi Rever is a journalist from Montréal and is the author of In Praise of Blood: The Crimes of the Rwandan Patriotic Front.

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