President Paul Kagame of Rwanda has long been the darling of prominent liberals such as Bill Clinton, Samantha Power and Tony Blair. But, it’s become ever more difficult to publicly back the bloodstained Rwandan dictator.
After two decades in power Kagame recently had the constitution changed so (only) he can keep running for office. Alongside Kagame’s move to stay president for life, the regime has employed increasingly brazen tactics to deter dissent. Extending their assassination program beyond East Africa, in recent years Rwanda has assassinated (or attempted to) a number of former top officials in South Africa.
In Canada Gerald Caplan is Kagame’s leading liberal backer. Last week the former NDP strategist published an op-ed on the political conflict in Burundi, which invoked Kigali’s rhetoric of “genocide” all the while ignoring Rwanda’s role in organizing armed opposition to the Burundian government. For more than a decade and a half Caplan has legitimated Kagame’s authoritarianism, his atrocities during the 1990–94 invasion of Rwanda and repeated invasions of the Congo, which have left millions dead.
Caplan was converted to Kagame’s cause when he was commissioned to write a report for the Organization of African Unity in the late 1990s. At the behest of a Canadian panelist, Caplan largely wrote The Preventable Genocide for the Organization of African Unity Panel of Eminent Personalities to Investigate the 1994 Genocide in Rwanda & the Surrounding Events. The initiative was reportedly instigated by US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and it was partly funded by Canada.
While paying lip service to the complex interplay of ethnic, class and regional politics, as well as international pressures, that spurred the Rwandan Genocide, the 300-page report is premised on the unsubstantiated claim that there was a high level plan by the Hutu government to kill all Tutsi. It ignores the overwhelming evidence (and logic) pointing to Kagame’s Rwandan Patriotic Front as the most likely culprit in shooting down the plane carrying Rwandan Hutu President Juvénal Habyarimana and much of the Army high command. This event sparked the genocidal killings of spring 1994. The report also rationalizes Rwanda’s repeated invasions of the Congo, including a 1,500 km march to topple Joseph Mobutu’s regime in Kinshasa and subsequent re-invasion after the government it installed expelled Rwandan troops, which led to an eight-country war between 1998 and 2003. A decade after the mass killing of Rwandan Tutsi (and Hutu) in 1994 Caplan was still repeating Kagame’s rationale for unleashing mayhem in the Congo. In 2004 the self-described “Africa scholar” wrote, “From Zaire they [Genocidaires] began an insurgency back into Rwanda with the purpose of ‘finishing the job’. Eventually this led to the Rwandan’s invading Zaire/Congo to suppress the insurgency.”
As part of his staunch support for the regime in Kigali, Caplan has sought to muzzle media that question the official version of the “Rwanda Genocide”. In 2014 he signed an open letter condemning the BBC 2 documentary Rwanda’s Untold Story. The 1,266 word public letter refers to the BBC’s “genocide denial”, “genocide deniers” or “deniers” at least 13 times. Notwithstanding Caplan and his co-signers smears, which gave Kagame cover to ban BBC’s Kinyarwanda station, Rwanda the Untold Story interviews a former chief prosecutor at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), a former high-ranking member of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Rwanda and a number of former Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) associates of Kagame. In The Kagame-Power Lobby’s Dishonest Attack on the BBC 2’s Documentary on Rwanda, Edward S. Hermann and David Peterson write: “[Caplan et al.’s] cry of the immorality of ‘genocide denial’ provides a dishonest cover for Paul Kagame’s crimes in 1994 and for his even larger crimes in Zaire-DRC [Congo]. … [The letter signees are] apologists for Kagame Power, who now and in years past have served as intellectual enforcers of an RPF and U.S.-U.K.-Canadian party line.”
In a more aggressive effort to suppress discussion of Rwanda, Caplan reported in 2013 that he lobbied the head of the University of Toronto to remove the Taylor Report, a program on the University’s radio station, from the station. “I asked the then-president of the University of Toronto whether even within the framework of free speech, it was appropriate for the university’s radio station to so blatantly promote genocide denial. He explained that the station had editorial independence but agreed to seek information from CIUT’s then-station manager. He reported back to me that the latter disagreed with my assessment of CIUT’s coverage of Rwanda and would keep The Taylor Report running as it was.”
In criticizing the Taylor Report Caplan complained that host Phil Taylor gave a platform to Robin Philpott who he dubbed “perhaps Canada’s most prominent [genocide] denier.” Caplan claimed Philpot was part of “a tiny number of long-time American and Canadian genocide deniers, who gleefully drink each other’s putrid bath water.”
But Philpot, who’s written a number of books on Rwanda, countered with an impressive list of individuals who disagree with Caplan’s pro-RPF version of Rwandan history. This includes the former Secretary General of the United Nations Boutros Boutros-Ghali, head of the UN mission in Rwanda Jacques-Roger Booh-Booh, head of Belgian troops in Kigali Colonel Luc Marchal, intelligence officer for the UN mission in Rwanda Amadou Deme, Hotel Rwanda’s Paul Rusesabagina, Belgian historian Filip Reyntjens etc. Philpot writes, “he obviously cannot mention their names because their testimony flies in the face of Caplan’s, simplistic, Hollywood, good-guys-versus-bad-guys version of events.”
Caplan’s “Hollywood” version of the Rwandan tragedy has led him to back the liberal imperialist Responsibility to Protect doctrine and call for more US interventions. In 2013 he co-authored an article titled Genocide: America says ‘Never Again,’ but keeps turning a blind eye and in an earlier interview Caplan complained that “every U.S. President from Reagan to Obama has made grand speeches that declare the words ‘never again,’ and yet each one has allowed some terrible disaster to go unnoticed. Inaction has been the reoccurring theme in all of these administrations.”
While Caplan’s assessment of the Rwandan tragedy has led him to a decidedly non-progressive worldview, complaining about US “inaction” has been good for his career. Caplan has parlayed his writing and activism on Rwanda into gigs with the UN as well as the Globe and Mail and CBC. Caplan also charges a massive speaker fee. According to a Speakerpedia representative, it would cost “$7500-10k USD plus travel from Toronto” to have him present in Montréal. Caplan’s Speakerpedia profile is largely devoted to Rwanda, noting he’s “visited Rwanda more than a dozen times and has written and spoken widely about the Rwandan genocide.”
While Caplan presents himself as defending Africa against the West’s “betrayal”, history will judge his Rwanda work harshly. When Kagame falls it will become clear Caplan has provided important ideological cover to the individual responsible for the largest number of African deaths over the past quarter-century.