The UK’s view of Rwanda is deeply ignorant – I once fell prey to it myself

Show caption Priti Patel with the mayor of Kigali, Pudence Rubingisa, left, visiting premises allocated for refugees in Rwanda on 14 April 2022. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images Opinion The UK’s view of Rwanda is deeply ignorant – I once fell prey to it myself Giles Foden The refugee deal with President Kagame reveals a profound misunderstanding of history Tue 24 May 2022 06.00 BST Share on Facebook

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It’s easy to fall prey to misconceptions about Rwanda. I’ve done so myself while writing about the small country – about twice the size of Yorkshire – to which we are dispatching our “migrant problem”. With flights to Kigali imminent, and the president, Paul Kagame, proposing alleged UK-based “génocidaires” be extradited to face trial, I wonder if we really understand what we’re getting into.

Faults in Priti Patel’s policy should not need rehearsing. Yet so great is western ignorance and amnesia about Rwanda (and the wider Great Lakes region of Africa) that the arguments against require reinforcement. For there has, since the genocide, been a “blank ahistoricism” about the country, as the Rwanda expert Michela Wrong has put it.

The arguments against this devil’s bargain with the Rwandan government include: its assassination or abduction of rivals abroad, notably allegations surrounding the cases of Patrick Karegeya (Kagame’s former intelligence chief, strangled in a Johannesburg hotel – the government has denied any involvement) and Paul Rusesabagina (subject of the film Hotel Rwanda, tricked into flying to Rwanda from Texas); the suppression of activists and journalists within Rwanda; a poor history of hosting migrants (many Eritreans and Sudanese, sent from Israel, fled Rwanda for Uganda – others started the journey to Europe); a likely lack of oversight of UK funds (initially £120m) paid to Rwanda; and, not least, the difficulty of fending off challenges by – to use Johnson’s judiciary-hating phrase – “lefty lawyers”.

It’s fallacious to say, as Patel has done, that the policy is right simply because no one is offering alternatives. It’s instructive, too, that fellow Conservative Andrew Mitchell, first among those few MPs who know Rwanda, does not support this policy. Maybe he agrees with David Davis that the scheme is “moral delinquency”. These are not the usual bedfellows of lefty lawyers.

My own fitful learning began more than 30 years ago, in October 1990. From a house on the Uganda-Rwanda border, while writing The Last King of Scotland, I watched canvas-sided lorries traverse the valley below. They were carrying troops of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) to incursion points from Uganda into Rwanda. This force, consisting mainly of exiled Tutsi veterans of the Ugandan wars that followed Idi Amin’s despotism, was on that occasion repulsed. Next developed 18 months of guerrilla warfare, led by Kagame, from an RPF base in the cross-border Virunga mountains. Later came the RPF’s militarised response to the genocide of 1994, again led by the same man who will host some 50 migrants the British government is hoping to send in coming weeks.

No one should doubt that Hutu supremacists were responsible for the genocide and Kagame’s forces ended it. These facts should not mask the continuing cauldron of complexity into which we are now diving headlong. In respect of extrajudicial killings since the genocide, the Rwandan government has honoured itself almost as much as Putin’s Russia. Its history of this is not limited to notable opponents. During the first and second Congo wars (1996-1997 and 1998-2003), attacks on Hutu civilians who had fled to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), committed by proxy Rwandan militias and the Rwandan army, cost the lives of tens of thousands.

Data for the execution of Hutu refugees are recorded in Gérard Prunier’s From Genocide to Continental War: The Congolese Conflict and the Crisis of Contemporary Africa (2009). Western nations turned their eyes from Rwanda’s “refugee management programmes” during that period. Unwilling to risk a fragile post-genocide stability, they also had political and natural-resource interests in DRC. And they did not understand the complexity. Neither did I at the time – not enough, or too late.

What happened in the Congo wars, forming the historical basis of my scales-fallen-from-eyes novel, Freight Dogs, is why I doubt Johnson and Patel’s assertion that Rwanda is transformed into “one of the safest countries in the world”. It’s not just Conservatives who don’t get it: those two wars involve a particularly British disregard of the Great Lakes. The second war officially ended in July 2003, with the worst massacres long dispatched; only in April had the Blair government, focused on Iraq, begun to half consider them. Five years later, as new violence erupted, calls for EU intervention were blocked by Britain.

Rwanda was the prime mover in much of this, although at least eight other African nations were implicated in the second war, along with myriad armed groups. This little reported suite of antagonisms caused a death toll of 5.4 million. That figure includes mortality from dysentery, malaria and malnutrition, as refugees fled fighting. It remains nonetheless the deadliest global conflict since the second world war, causing chaos in DRC, a country nearly four times the size of Ukraine, with about 50 million more people. One might speak of black lives not mattering. Rage about this was why I wrote my novel, which took all too long, because the subject is indeed so complex.

Despite talks last month to get Rwanda’s proxy rebel group, M23, to lay down its arms, conflict continues in eastern DRC, albeit much less so than formerly. On Monday and Sunday, M23 attacked UN forces in the region. Uganda, not Rwanda, has borne the brunt of a consequent refugee crisis in the Great Lakes – among other factors, it is perceived as safer than Rwanda.

Uganda hosts the largest population of refugees in Africa: more than 1.5 million, of which nearly 460,000 are from DRC, along with many from other nations, including Rwanda itself. Given Rwanda’s role in causing DRC and its own citizens to flee, is it wise to be sending people there? Or anywhere in the Great Lakes, a region that has so often fallen victim to itself and the asymmetric morality western nations apply to it.

To do so as neighbouring east Africa faces a severe drought, with the UN’s World Food Programme saying 20 million people are at immediate risk of hunger, which will cause further flows of refugees, shows how wrong this policy is. We are a small island with a relatively small migrant problem. Even smaller Rwanda, so often misconceived, should not be coming into the solution at all.

Giles Foden is the author of Freight Dogs, Zanzibar and The Last King of Scotland

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