Paul Kagame is revered for stopping Rwanda’s genocide and engineering what admirers call an economic miracle, but his critics see a despot who crushes all opposition and rules through fear.
The 59-year-old former guerrilla fighter is seeking a third term in office in August 4 polls after voters massively approved a constitutional amendment allowing him to run again and potentially stay in office for another two decades.
Kagame frames his run as a duty to his country, however the move angered international allies whose patience has worn thin with a man once held up as a shining example of successful post-colonial leadership in Africa.
Yet the president of the tiny central African nation has become one of Africa’s most powerful and admired leaders. His counterparts, inspired by Rwanda’s turnaround, have tasked him with reforming the African Union.
Shattered by the 1994 genocide and with not a franc left in the national treasury when Kagame took over, Rwanda is now growing at an average seven percent a year while Kigali has transformed into a capital with a gleaming skyline, spotless, safe streets and zero tolerance for corruption.
“Kagame is known as a doer and an implementer, not somebody who says things just like everyone else,” said Desire Assogbavi, Oxfam’s liason to the AU who also blogs regularly about the body.
His close friend Tony Blair hails him as a “visionary leader” for the remarkable development he has brought about.
– ‘Unapologetically authoritarian’ –
The president’s personality — described as “unapologetically authoritarian” by author Philip Gourevitch, who wrote a powerful account of the genocide — was forged by growing up in exile.
In 1960, when he was three, his aristocratic Tutsi family fled to neighbouring Uganda to escape pogroms.
While out of danger, they suffered years of discrimination and persecution that nourished the dream of going back to the homeland they idealised.
Serving in Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni’s rebel force before and after it seized power in 1986, he rose to become its intelligence chief.
Kagame — the only president known to have had military training both in the US and Cuba — later took over command of a small rebel force of Rwandan exiles that sneaked back home hoping to overthrow the regime of Juvenal Habyarimana in 1990, sparking civil war.
Habyarimana’s death in an aeroplane crash in 1994 triggered three months of genocide, mostly of minority Tutsis by youths in the Hutu majority whipped into a frenzy of hate.
Kagame, a father of four, was just 36 when his Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) rebel army routed the forces who had slaughtered an estimated 800,000 people and seized Kigali, becoming the de facto leader of the nation.
– ‘New breed of dictator’ –
Kagame soon became the darling of an international community deeply ashamed at having stood by during the genocide, even as his RPF was accused of killing tens of thousands of people in the Democratic Republic of Congo while pursuing genocide perpetrators.
It was accusations Kagame was backing rebel groups in the DRC — which he staunchly denies — that finally pushed his allies to take a tougher line, with several suspending aid to Rwanda in 2012.
And criticism has grown louder over his rights record.
Kagame’s critics have ended up jailed, forced into exile or assassinated. Rights groups slam the repression of the media and opposition.
Kagame won elections in 2003 and 2010 with 95 and 93 percent respectively. Observers say real opponents are silenced while those allowed to run in elections serve as a democratic facade.
One of Rwanda’s rare critical journalists, Robert Mugabe, describes Kagame as the quintessential modern dictator.
“We have a new breed of dictators… they hire PR agencies they form a narrative and these dictators are smart enough to know what the western world wants to see and wants to hear.”
Kagame, his aloof gaze piercing through black-rimmed glasses, coolly brushes off criticism over his governance and slams the “arrogant” West for dictating to Rwandans what freedom is.
“A strong leader is not necessarily a bad leader. I don’t know where we would be today if a weak leader had taken over this country (after the genocide),” Kagame told Jeune Afrique magazine in 2016.