Toronto Raptors’ president Masai Ujiri claims to be an ambassador for Africa. But, his embrace of the most bloodstained African leader makes a mockery of any pan-Africanist pretenses.
On July 26 Ujiri traveled to Kigali to visit Rwandan president Paul Kagame. He was photographed next to the ruthless dictator sporting a T-shirt with a small map of the continent. Ujiri posted on Instagram: “Put your money where your mouth is. So proud of President Kagame building the Kigali Arena. Told us a year ago that he was going to do it. DONE. A shining example that — Africa is NOW!!”
A Rwandan media report highlights how the trip bolstered Kagame. “Toronto Raptor’s president lauds Kagame for fast tracking construction of Kigali Arena”, read the headline.
In a December article titled “Why do Raptors associate with blood-stained dictator?” I detailed Ujiri’s “friendship” with Kagame, which has blossomed amidst growing recognition of his violence. Among numerous examples, Ujiri invited Kagame to participate in a number of events at the 2016 NBA All-Star week in Toronto, responding to a Toronto Star inquiry about the matter by saying “there is no controversy.”
But there should be. CNN recently headlined a story, “Opposition members keep going ‘missing’ in Rwanda. Few expect them to return” while a Deutsche Welle article noted, “Rwanda’s disappearing opposition”. An August Harpers story titled “Brutal from the beginning: everyone’s favorite strongman” discussed the NBA’s romance with Kagame who “for a quarter century… has maintained power through familiar authoritarian means — rewriting constitutions to establish one-party rule and extend term limits, administering elections in which he received up to 99 percent of the vote. His reign has also been marked by widespread human-rights abuses, likely including the assassination of political opponents.”
That’s a benign description of Kagame whose record is anything but “familiar”. The “military genius” played an important role in toppling governments in Kampala in 1986, Kigali in 1994 and Kinshasa in 1997. After the latter effort Rwandan forces reinvaded the Congo, which sparked an eight-country war that left millions dead between 1998 and 2003. Over the past two decades — again last March — Kagame has repeatedly invaded the Congo, which has as much as $24 trillion in mineral riches. Rwandan-instigated violence in eastern Congo has contributed to the Ebola outbreak, sexual violence and dreadful conditions of Coltan workers there.
Rwanda has been in conflict with Burundi for years and during the past year Kagame and former brother in arms, Uganda President Yoweri Museveni, have nearly gone to war. Uganda accuses Kagame’s operatives of infiltrating the country and carrying out countless abductions and killings.
Five years ago Pretoria expelled Rwandan diplomats from South Africa after the country’s officials were implicated in the assassination of Kagame critics. Former Rwandan intelligence chief Patrick Karegeya was murdered in Johannesburg while former army chief Faustin Kayumba survived an assassination bid.
In publicly and forthrightly backing Kagame, Ujiri is aligning himself with Washington’s main ally in East Africa. Trained at the US Army Command and General Staff College in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, Kagame is close to liberal imperialists such as Tony Blair and Bill Clinton. Kagame has also drawn close to Israel and Justin Trudeau’s government has continued Canada’s support for the dictator.
After the Raptors won the NBA championship in June many progressives celebrated Ujiri’s on-stage snub of Trump-light Ontario Premier Doug Ford. While hostile to conservative political forces that denigrate African countries as “shitholes”, Ujiri has aligned with an inequitable power structure that forces most Rwandans, Congolese, Burundians, Ugandans etc., to live on under three dollars a day.
It takes chutzpah to wear a T-shirt with a little map of the continent as you embrace a leader whose hands are dripping in African blood. Ujiri’s liberal capitalist political brethren — Trudeau, Obama and Clinton — are surely impressed. But those of us who see Africans as fellow human beings, not simply a “market” to be exploited, must be sad and at least a little angry.