Op-Ed | Why did Tufts give a platform to a dictator?

On Tuesday April 22, Tufts University gave a very warm welcome to Rwandan President Paul Kagame. Fletcher Dean Stavridis and President Monaco told a packed Cabot Auditorium audience that they were “thrilled” and “honored” to have His Excellency on campus to discuss Rwanda’s road to recovery 20 years after the horrific Tutsi genocide. On an official event webpage, Kagame was described as Rwanda’s first democratically-elected president, a United Nations leader and a statesman setting his country on a course of “reconciliation, nation building and socioeconomic development.”

After a 20-minute lecture by Kagame, Tufts officials posed three pre-selected questions, and he was able to answer four more from the audience. It was, by any measure, a wonderful event for the Rwandan leader, who had ample time to tout his achievements with regard to economic growth, private investment, ethnic harmony and the cleanliness, efficiency and stability of his country’s cities. When finished, he received a standing ovation, and Dean Stavridis thanked him amid photo-ops for a “candid and wonderful” conversation. Tufts’ public relations office released a statement saying that the university was “pleased that the event was well-attended and the audience fully engaged.”

The question is: how many of the organizers or audience members knew that Paul Kagame is a murderous dictator? Before you turn away in disbelief, consider the following facts.

Despite Tufts officials’ claims, Kagame is no democrat. He won his first election in 2003 with 95 percent of the vote, in a contest where critics said the opposition was “virtually excluded from campaigning.” During his second election in 2010, Kagame jailed political rivals and shuttered critical newspapers en route to winning 93 percent of the vote. As The Guardian observed, “opposition groups have been excluded, journalists have been intimidated and dissenting voices have been silenced, sometimes violently.” A former party official in exile was shot in the stomach after voicing criticism of Kagame. Meanwhile, a critical journalist was killed, and a deputy leader of an opposition party was found beheaded. One opponent, Victoire Ingabire, was arrested soon after launching her campaign. She is still in prison today.

Once Rwanda’s liberator, Kagame has spent two decades building a harsh authoritarian regime, working hard to consolidate power and extinguish dissenting voices. He operates a police state using the national army and his political party, the Rwandan Patriotic Front. According to Susan Thomson, a Rwanda expert at Colgate University, “The RPF saturates every aspect of life in Rwanda … they know everything: if you’ve been drinking, if you’ve had an affair, if you’ve paid your taxes.” Reporters Without Borders calls Kagame a “predator of the press,” while Human Rights Watch has observed “a long-established pattern of assassination and attempted assassination of Rwandan government critics.” Freedom House designates Rwanda with its lowest freedom ranking, on par with Iran and Zimbabwe and worse than Burma and Russia.

After taking power, Kagame orchestrated massacres of Hutus in Rwanda and in neighboring countries. In a vivid recent report The Wall Street Journal describes how, in the chaos after the 1994 genocide, Kagame’s army “conducted its own mass slaughters across Rwanda, rounding up unarmed Hutu civilians by the thousands and machine-gunning them.” In 1996, Kagame started a war with neighboring Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The International Rescue Committee estimates that more than five million people have died as a result of this military campaign. I’ll repeat: five million people.

Remember Tufts’ official campus statement about Kagame being a U.N. leader? Well, a U.N. investigation found that his army and allies “killed tens of thousands of innocent refugees” in the Congolese jungles, while pillaging a fortune in gold and other precious metals. According to a 545-page report, “the majority of the victims were children, women, elderly people and the sick, who were often undernourished and posed no threat to the attacking forces.” Columbia University professor Howard French claims that Kagame’s campaigns against Rwandan and Congolese Hutu have killed as many as 300,000 people.

In 2012 the head of the U.S. war crimes office warned Kagame that he could face prosecution at the International Criminal Court for arming rebel groups in the Congo. Again, an official in the Obama administration has suggested that Kagame has committed war crimes. The U.N. has also presented detailed evidence that Kagame was financing M23, a particularly notorious death squad founded by Bosco Ntaganda. Nicknamed “The Terminator”, Ntaganda is a warlord on trial in The Hague, where witnesses testified that he personally used child soldiers and ordered troops to rape and kill civilians.

Despite all of the widely-available evidence, President Kagame did not have to face a single question at Tufts’ April 22 event about human rights, attacks on dissidents, massacres or his support for armed groups. To the great disgrace of Tufts alumni, parents, donors and current students, the administration chose to genuflect before a man who should have been taken to task. 

When Columbia University hosted Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the school as an institution made it categorically clear that the Iranian leader was there to be heard in the spirit of a lively debate that did not exist inside the dictatorship of Iran, and the school’s president sharply challenged Ahmadinejad on the controversial human rights issues. Despite the fact that Kagame stands accused of a much larger number of deaths than Ahmadinejad, Tufts made no such statement. Instead, anyone in the audience at Cabot would have had to figure out Kagame’s crimes on their own, given that pre-event materials portrayed him as a democratic hero.

The burden for holding Kagame accountable was to be shouldered by two students, both who had the courage to criticize a powerful world leader, face to face. One, a Tufts undergraduate, challenged Kagame on the Rwandan educational system, where teachers have been arrested for not following the “official” government version of the genocide which downplays the deaths of tens of thousands of Hutus. Another, a Fletcher student, asked what Kagame had to say about rumors of him running for a third term, which would violate the Rwandan constitution. Kagame quickly brushed off the first accusation as a media fabrication, and charmed the audience by laughing off the second question, along with the moderators and everyone else in the room.

Of course, it is likely that Kagame would have never agreed to come to Tufts if the agreement had included focused criticism on his human rights abuses. In an attempt to bring big issues and big global players to campus, Tufts officials instead made an intellectual sacrifice and allowed a dictator to be whitewashed. The result was a terrific opportunity for Kagame to gain international credibility at a highly-respected institution in a format he knew he could control and spin for a positive outcome. 

Filip Reyntjens, a Rwanda expert and professor of African Law and Politics at the University of Antwerp, has stated that “there is overwhelming evidence of responsibility for war crimes and crimes against humanity” against Kagame. In a 2013 interview, Reyntjens said that Kagame’s crimes “rank with those perpetrated by former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein or Sudanese leader Omar al-Bashir.” For all his “vision and ambition,” he said, Kagame is “probably the worst war criminal in office today.”

And yet, this man was presented to the Tufts student body as a role model. For that, the president and trustees of Tufts owe the campus community a detailed explanation.


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