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Since Rwanda's genocide ended in 1994, the East African nation has been led by the Rwandan Patriotic Front and current President Paul Kagame, who has been celebrated by many for bringing stability and economic gains to the long-struggling country. But to Kagame’s opponents, his authoritarian rule is setting a dangerous precedent. Special correspondents Benedict Moran and Jorgen Samso report.
Jean Bosco Ngarama left Rwanda seven years ago. But the memories of his torture there are still fresh.
Jean Bosco Ngarama:
I was brought into a small room, which I considered like a slaughterhouse. I saw machetes, I saw axes, I saw electric cables. It was a room where they torture people.
Ngarama says his problems began in 2010, when he lived in the capital Kigali. He worked for a human rights organization, and was openly critical of Rwanda's government. In March of that year, unknown assailants launched grenade attacks on the city. Soon after, Ngarama, was arrested and imprisoned.
They asked me to admit that I know the people who threw the grenades. 'You have no information?' I said 'no.' They said, 'if you don't do it willingly, you'll do it by force.' They slapped me. Then they brought batons and they hit me with electric cables. I was standing up. When I screamed, they took plastic bottles, and shoved it in my mouth. Blood was pouring out of my mouth.
He says a soldier then electrocuted him, and he passed out. He was held for eight months before being charged with conspiracy. Months later, he was tried but was in fact acquitted. Ngarama now lives in Philadelphia and is determined to speak out.
They knew I was innocent. But sometimes, the military soldiers said, 'Jean Bosco, even if you don't do anything, we want to brainwash you.' That's the term they used, to wash your brain.
Allegations like Ngarama's tell a tale about Rwanda at odds with the international reputation it has worked hard to achieve. The East African country is known for making a remarkable turnaround since the 1994 genocide. Today, it has one of the fastest-growing economies in Africa. There's universal healthcare. The streets are clean. These results have earned the country and President Paul Kagame praise in the United States.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP:
"It's an honor to have you as a friend. Thank you."
"Paul Kagame is the reason Rwanda is leading the way. Rwanda is a clear example of what a strong strategic partner should look like to the United States."
Last year, President Kagame was named African of the Year at the All Africa Business Leaders Awards, for his role in the transformation of his country.
This is the Kigali Convention Center, built for an estimated 2 to 300 million dollars. This week they are hosting the African CEO forum. It's labeled Africa's biggest annual business summit.
It's an example of how the country has branded itself a hub of business and tourism.Through companies like Rwandair, the national airlines.
RwandAir today covers about 26 destinations and we are looking to open more new routes very soon.
The goal is to seek investment and prosperity by portraying what is safe and business friendly about the country. European Union Ambassador to Rwanda, Nicola Bellomo.
Rwanda is now on the map, Rwanda is on the radar screen everywhere. President Kagame is becoming more and more the voice of Africa. Some consider his development model, you know, something to be followed.
Despite praise from the United States, the 2018 U.S. State Department's own human rights report on Kagame's Rwanda cites instances of unlawful or arbitrary killings, forced disappearances, torture, and arbitrary detention of Rwandan civilians by state security forces. Journalists have been threatened by police or killed under mysterious circumstances. Most at risk are those who directly oppose the government. In 2010, opposition leader Victoire Ingabire was running for President when she was charged with quote "minimizing the genocide" and so-called "divisionism," which is a crime in Rwanda. She was convicted and sentenced to 15 years in prison. She is now out of prison, after Kagame approved her early release in September of last year.
It is not easy to be in opposition in Rwanda.
In her office hang the pictures of nine party members who are in jail, plus one who mysteriously disappeared while in prison last October.
The government has the characteristic of a [de] facto one party system. We have so many political parties in the country, but they work together as one party.
Even some of Kagame's closest advisors have fallen out with him. David Himbara worked for President Kagame as an Economic Advisor, and then as his Private Secretary.
He's a one-man government. He's in charge of the executive, the judiciary, and the legislative branch.
Himbara says many of the original men and women who came to power with Paul Kagame after the genocide have fled, or worse.
They're either dead or in exile. No original person, they are nowhere to be seen. The others, they are underground — 'shhhh' they are keeping quiet.' Kagame is, I think, a person whose life is consumed by militarism and violence.
Himbara now lives in Toronto, Canada, and advocates for Rwandan opposition groups. Even those Rwandans who have left the country aren't guaranteed safety. In 2008, former Rwandan spy chief Patrick Karegeya fled to South Africa, and set up an opposition party in exile. He was found strangled to death in a Johannesburg hotel in 2014. This May, a South African police officer investigating the crime testified that the murder was directly linked to the involvement of the Rwandan government. Kagame denied any involvement in the attack. But two weeks after Karegeya was assassinated, he issued this warning.
Betrayal has consequences. Anyone who betrays our cause or wishes to harm our people will fall a victim. What remains to be seen is how you fall victim. There are many ways.
Meanwhile, the man who represented Rwanda at the United Nations as recently as 2016, Richard Gasana, has sought asylum in the United States. His lawyer confirmed that Ambassador Gasana fell out with Kagame and fled to the U.S. for reasons that quote "relate to his personal safety." But in a country recently ripped apart by ethnic divisions, Kagame's supporters say his strong-arm approach is necessary to create national unity and so avoid another bloody conflict. Jean-Paul Kimonyo is a policy advisor to President Kagame.
Now we are trying to get back to a strong state of a strong nation. Without social cohesion and national unity, there's not much you can do. And certainly not mobilize the population to go ahead and transform things and be efficient.
Rwanda projects continued economic growth which it hopes will bring it into the ranks of high-income countries by 2050. Kimonyo says these lofty aspirations require a strong leader at the helm.
What we want is profound change. And profound change takes time. It's not the time of a journalist, it's not the time of researcher or observers. It's our time. And our time is to change things profoundly.
It is difficult to judge how much support there is inside the country for Kagame's brand of profound change. In 2015, Rwandan voters approved a change to the national Constitution, allowing Kagame to run for a third term and possibly stay in office until 2034. And he was re-elected in 2017 with a staggering 98.8-Percent of the vote. Advocates like Human Rights Watch said the vote took place in a context of quote "limited free speech or open political space," and the U.S. State Department said it was marked by irregularities. At the African CEO gathering, Kagame addressed his critics overseas, saying he works at the behest of the Rwandan people.
"We have openly stated that it doesn't matter, anybody from outside, whether you like me or you don't like me, President Kagame is here as President of Rwanda, as a business of Rwandans. Their business. If they want Kagame they'll have him, if they don't want Kagame they'll remove him, it doesn't matter."
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