Questions raised over former prime minister’s links to Rwandan regime accused of human rights abuses
9:00PM GMT 12 Nov 2011
When André Kagwa Rwisereka’s body was finally found near a river in southern Rwanda, his head was almost completely severed from his neck.
His attackers had repeatedly hacked at him with a machete which had been left at the scene. While the Rwandan police force suggested at the time that robbery may have been the motive, human rights campaigners suspected Mr Rwisereka, vice-president of an opposition party in this densely populated state smack in the heart of Africa, was actually the victim of a state-orchestrated execution.
Three weeks earlier, Jean Léonard Rugambage, a journalist who had ignored advice to flee Rwanda, was shot in the face and killed outside his house. Mr Rugambage had been investigating the attempted assassination of a dissident Rwandan general living in exile in South Africa.
The finger of blame for the killings has been widely pointed in the direction of the all-powerful Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), led by autocratic president Paul Kagame. The RPF seized power in the aftermath of the 1994 genocide in which about a million people — mostly Tutsis — were murdered in a 100-day killing spree by the Hutu majority.
And while Mr Kagame, himself a Tutsi, and the RPF deny responsibility, the murders — accompanied by the jailing of other opposition leaders, journalists and even a priest — have prompted serious concern about Rwanda’s future.
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Not least for Tony Blair, Rwanda’s and Mr Kagame’s cheerleader-in-chief. Mr Blair has enjoyed a close friendship with Mr Kagame, 54, visiting six times since leaving Downing Street in June 2007.
Britain’s former prime minister acts as personal adviser to Mr Kagame, while one of his charities, the Africa Governance Initiative (AGI), employs about 10 people inside the Rwandan government, helping it to run more effectively. AGI, run by Kate Gross, a former Downing Street aide based in London, also has offices in Sierra Leone and Liberia and is looking to expand into other African countries.
Since the genocide, Rwanda under Mr Kagame’s stewardship has made spectacular progress in part because Britain and the US — largely out of guilt over their abject failure to intervene to prevent the genocide — have committed huge sums to rebuilding the country.
Kigali has established a reputation as the safest city in Africa, making it a comfortable environment in which charities — including a social action project run by the Conservative Party — can operate. The Tories’ team leader on the Rwanda trips, the MP Stephen Crabb, said last week his group kept a “healthy and appropriate distance between ourselves and the government of Rwanda”.
The human rights abuses have cast a long shadow over the country’s progress. Mr Kagame’s carefully built reputation as a moderniser has been further damaged by a 550-page United Nations report last year which accused the Rwandan army, under his control, of horrific war crimes in the Congo in the mid-1990s, including mass murder and rape of tens of thousands of Hutus, in revenge for the genocide. The Rwandan government “categorically rejects” the report.
Mr Blair’s faith in Mr Kagame appears undiminished. A fortnight before Mr Rugambage’s death in June last year, Mr Blair and his team enjoyed a three-night stay in the presidential suite at the Serena Hotel in Kigali, on one of his many visits to Rwanda’s capital. With its master bedroom and en-suite Jacuzzi, two further bedrooms, and views across the Rwandan hills, the suite is entirely suitable for a figure of Mr Blair’s stature. The suite can cost as much as £2,000 a night.
“Mr Blair is always very polite when he comes here,” said a concierge at the hotel as he showed The Sunday Telegraph around the presidential suite via a secure lift to the fifth floor retreat, “It is very nice for Rwanda to have a good friend like that.”
Mr Blair, who is said to have earned as much as £50 million since quitting Downing Street, insisted last night that he had “covered his accommodation costs before he left”.
In a country where half the population gets by on just 80p a day, Mr Blair has enjoyed other presidential comforts. Mr Kagame has also paid for a private jet, leased by the Rwandan government, to fly Mr Blair in and out of the country.
Mr Blair refused to say last week on how many occasions he had flown in a private jet paid for by the Rwandans.
Young, bright and very eager, Team Blair on the ground in Rwanda has staff in the president’s and prime minister’s offices as well as in the Ministry of Finance and in the Rwandan Development Board. Chauffeur-driven around Kigali in new Toyota Corollas, they mentor local workers and help them draw up and implement policy.
AGI’s previous Rwandan head, Jon Reynaga, another former Downing Street aide, quit in the summer, moving to Los Angeles to work on, among other things, the US version of The X Factor. His leaving party was combined with an Office of Tony Blair party — or “OTB” as it said on the invitation — and urged guests to come dressed as “Hollywood glamour and trash”.
“The Blair bunch are an interesting group,” said one aid worker in Rwanda last week. “They are very guarded about what they do. They want to have their cake and eat it. They want to be on the inside of the Rwandan government but only in a technical capacity. They won’t get into sensitive government issues.”
In 2009, not long after AGI was established in Rwanda, Mr Blair led a delegation to Kigali which included Christian Angermayer, a founder of one of Germany’s largest financial services groups. Mr Angermayer also acts as an adviser to Mr Kagame. Mr Blair is in a good position to introduce Rwanda to a lot of wealthy people although there is no suggestion that Mr Blair has benefited financially from his dealings in the country.
He doesn’t need to. Mr Blair earns his money elsewhere. He is paid £2 million to advise the US investment bank JP Morgan and a further £500,000 for consultancy work for Zurich International, the Swiss insurer. He also advises the Kuwaiti government, the United Arab Emirates’ sovereign wealth fund, Mubadala, and most recently the Kazakh government, itself no stranger to accusations of human rights abuses.
AGI’s funding is not entirely clear, although none comes from the Rwandan government. Bill Gates’s charitable foundation has made a sizeable donation and so too has the Gatsby Charitable Foundation, which was set up by the Labour peer and former minister Lord Sainsbury of Turville. AGI’s latest accounts show an income of £3.2 million with half that — equivalent to £57,000 each — paid to its 22 employees, seven secondees and subcontractors.
In one of the few deals in Rwanda in which Mr Blair is known to have played a major role, he was instrumental in persuading ministers to rent out 10,000 hectares of mainly scrub and bush to a British company with plans to grow a controversial crop called jatropha, which potentially can be harvested and turned into biofuel.
At a time when the deal was in danger of stalling, Mr Blair and his team at AGI stepped in to push it ahead, getting the Rwandans to agree to lease the land to the company Eco-Positive for a rent of a few thousand dollars a year. By 2015, the company hopes to supply one fifth of the country’s diesel, equivalent to about 20 million litres.
Simon Page, one of the shareholders of Eco-Positive, is a senior executive at JP Morgan although there is no suggestion that Mr Blair, who is a paid adviser to JP Morgan, was ever aware of that fact.
What other deals Mr Blair has worked on is hard to know. His friends Sir Evelyn de Rothschild, a philanthropist and senior figure in the banking industry, and his wife Lady Rothschild, visited Rwanda in September, staying in a suite at the Serena Hotel. “They came accompanied by presidential guards,” said a source. “They are looking to invest in a game lodge in Rwanda — to buy one and modernise it.”
The Rothschilds refused to comment last week on their four-day trip and any deals being struck in Rwanda.
Mr Blair also held talks with Gaddafi in 2008 after leaving Downing Street about “good worthwhile projects for investments” in Africa at a time when Libya had set aside billions of pounds for deals on the continent. It is not clear how much, if any, made its way to Kigali nor whether Mr Blair had any involvement. In 2008, the Libyan regime bought a Rwandan telecoms company while also taking control of a luxury hotel, the Laico Umubano, which, through a quirk of fate, happens to be the preferred lunchtime watering hole for Team Blair on the ground in Kigali. The international community has expressed its revulsion at the killings and other human rights abuses in Rwanda, such as the closure of independent newspapers and the jailing of Mr Kagame’s critics, including a Catholic priest who on Christmas Day last year condemned the regime’s family planning policies. However, Mr Blair, in public at least, has been unwavering in his support.
A little over a month after the killings in September 2010, Mr Blair delivered a congratulatory message to Mr Kagame, following his re-election with 93 per cent of the vote.
“The popular mandate received by President Kagame in the recent Presidential election,” declared Mr Blair at the time, “is testament to the huge strides made under his formidable leadership.”
It is suggested that the relationship with Mr Kagame was put under strain by an alleged plot by the state, uncovered by the Metropolitan Police in May, to assassinate two Rwandan exiles on British soil. Had the killings gone ahead, according to diplomatic sources, all bets would have been off, including £80 million a year in aid given to Rwanda by the British government.
Carina Tertsakian, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch who was forced to leave Rwanda last year, said: “To suggest Tony Blair is helping to prop up Kagame is putting it mildly. He has been very supportive of the Kagame regime from the beginning.
“We are not aware of Tony Blair nor any of his staff working in Rwanda raising the problem of human rights abuses. This effectively is sending a message to Kagame that these human rights violations don’t matter.”
Supporters of Mr Kagame point to the remarkable progress Rwanda has made since the genocide. Sir Tom Hunter, a Scottish billionaire and philanthropist who sits on the presidential advisory council along with Mr Blair and other dignitaries, said last week: “There are many colours of democracy and coming out of a genocide in the near history of 1994 when a million people died in 100 days we cannot expect the democracy we enjoy in Britain to suddenly happen magically in such a short period of time.”
In a statement, Mr Blair’s office defended his role in Rwanda. “Since 2008 the Africa Governance Initiative has supported President Kagame and the government of Rwanda in its efforts to create an effective public administration capable of delivering public services to its citizens and driving the country’s development,” it said.
“Rwanda has made a remarkable recovery from the tragedy of the 1994 genocide in which 800,000 people were murdered … This would not have been possible without the hard work of the people of Rwanda and the vision and leadership of President Kagame and his government.”
The statement went on: “AGI is proud to join them in supporting Rwanda on this journey. This journey is not complete: 50 per cent of Rwandans still live on less than $1.25 a day. President Kagame, his government and its partners recognise that the country’s political development must ultimately go hand in hand with its social and economic development. Tony Blair regularly raises these issues in his discussions with President Kagame.”
Mr Blair will be hoping that the Kagame regime, at least in the future, embraces democracy rather than clamps down on it further. Mr Blair was quick to bring Gaddafi in from the cold, only to see the tyrant revert to type and massacre his own people. He will just have to hope that Mr Kagame, despite Rwanda’s bloody past, can be steered by his team of enthusiastic charity workers down the democratic path. Mr Kagame’s opponents have their doubts.