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Rwanda: Paul Rusesabagina Arrest – It’s Complicated
Rwanda: Paul Rusesabagina Arrest – It’s Complicated avatar

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"It's complicated" best sums up the situation in Rwanda, where Paul Rusesabagina, a hero to the West, but controversial at home, was arrested for terrorism by a regime whose record on human rights is less than stellar.

The regime of President Paul Kagame staged a media circus complete with a handcuffed, mask-wearing principal protagonist just flown in from Dubai, where Paul Rusesabagina had been handed over to Kigali in compliance with an international capture mandate. The scene looked like an attempt to erase the narrative of heroics imprinted on a world-wide public's mind by the Hollywood movie "Hotel Rwanda."

That film portrayed Rusesabagina, of mixed Hutu and Tutsi ancestry, as the savior of more than 1,200 Tutsis and moderate Hutus, which he sheltered in his hotel during the 1994 Rwandan genocide. He gained renown as a humanitarian and was awarded medals, making it difficult for some to reconcile his heroic image with that of the murderer, arsonist and kidnapper depicted by his captors.

Analysts sound a more cautious note. "I think the charges have some credibility, to the extent that I think that a trial is necessary," political analyst Phil Clark of SOAS at the University of London told DW. The accusations against Rusesabagina were first made public by the Kigali government in 2010, when he became an increasingly vocal member of the opposition. "He has become a bit of a YouTube sensation, especially in the Rwandan diaspora, where he often places videos of himself calling for the armed overthrow of the regime in Kigali," Clark said.

A country divided

In Rwanda, Rusesabagina's detention divides opinions. "Many welcome the arrest as good news, saying that this way some parts of the country are not going to be destabilized again," according to DW correspondent Alex Ngarambe. "Others say he was a politician and as such just playing politics." Rwanda's opposition sees the arrest as just another instance of President Kagame's well-documented attempts to quash it.

Political journalist Gonzague Muganwa recalled for DW the cases of several Rwandan opposition leaders recently killed, in particular in the Democratic Republic of Congo. "I would say that this is a success for the Rwandan government, because it is gradually eliminating the various leaders of the armed groups," he said. The opposition, Muganwa added, made a grave mistake "by choosing to confront Kagame and his government with arms, because Kagame is particularly strong in this area."

Muganwa was referring to the creation of the National Liberation Front (FLN), a group believed to be behind the killing of civilians in the south of the country in 2018. The FLN is the armed wing of the opposition alliance Rwandan Movement for Democratic Change (MRCD). Rusesabagina is one of the latter's leaders. Authorities say the 66-year-old former hotelier helped finance the FLN through his Hotel Rwanda Foundation.

A toppled hero

A Belgian citizen and US resident, Rusesabagina lived in exile in San Antonio, Texas, for many years without fear of deportation. Officials in both countries have yet to comment his arrest, an indication of the complex relationship between the West and its longtime protege Rwanda. "I think a lot of donors are worried about the condition of democracy in Rwanda. There are real concerns over the human rights situation and a desire to see a more vibrant political opposition," said Phil Clark. Some of these countries seem to have placed their hopes for an opposition on Rusesabagina, at least for a while.

But Rusesabagina's calls for armed insurrection in Rwanda increasingly worried donors. "As a result we have seen a high degree of international cooperation in facilitating his arrest in the last couple of days," Clark said. The former hotelier's heroic veneer has also suffered some serious scratches in recent times. While still widely perceived as a savior in the West, thanks, in no small measure, to Hollywood, "some of the survivors [of the 1994 genocide] and the government say that he did not save them, and actually asked for money from them to let them into the hotel for safety," DW's correspondent Alex Ngarambe said.

According to analyst Phil Clark, there is no doubt that there was an active campaign to smear Rusesabagina shortly after the events, when he started to oppose President Kagame's authoritarian government. That said, "what happened is much more complex than the film "Hotel Rwanda would suggest," according to Clark, who learned from survivors that not only did they have to pay for protection; some were handed over to their killers by the former hotelier. "From interviews with survivors inside the hotel, one of the things that I know is that many of them are very angry that he was basically able to hijack the story of what happened in the Hotel des Mille Collines by using that film and the international notoriety that he enjoyed thereafter."

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'Rwanda keeps a lot of Western diplomats up at night'

This is just one more complication in a country that poses a real dilemma to the West. "On the one hand, you have a society that uses aid finance extremely effectively," having built up one of the best working welfare states in the region, fomented economic growth and made "great strides in terms of peace and reconciliation," Phil Clark said.

On the other hand, Rwanda is an authoritarian state, with "no viable political opposition inside the country, where dissidents have been routinely killed or harassed over the last ten or fifteen years," the expert said, adding: "Western donors like their recipients to be nice liberal democrats, who also use their financing effectively." They are ill prepared to deal with the reality of a country which fulfills a part of their expectations and thoroughly disappoints at the same time."Rwanda keeps a lot of western diplomats up at night just because of how complex the country is," Clark summed up.

Etienne Gatanazi contributed to this article.

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