LONDON (Reuters) - Foreign-based dissidents trying to damage Rwanda’s reputation may be behind recent killings of opposition and media figures that sparked worldwide criticism, its foreign minister said on Wednesday.
Human rights groups and others accuse President Paul Kagame of clamping down on dissent ahead of an August general election. They also point to the closure of two newspapers, the arrest of activists and the fact some opposition parties are barred from running.
That has the potential to worry foreign investors who have been increasingly attracted to Rwanda in recent years, drawn by potential growth in agriculture, infrastructure, solar, gas and hydropower generation as well as services and technology.
Two high profile killings of a journalist critical of the government and an opposition leader as well as the shooting of a dissident general in South Africa drew global media attention.
“It is unfortunate because it is not the real story of Rwanda,” Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo told Reuters on a visit to London.
“We believe it is simply to do with the election. It will go away after the election. It is not a long-term problem,” she said in an interview arranged by a Western public relations firm hired to burnish the central African state’s image.
Asked who might be behind the killings and other isolated acts of violence, Mushikiwabo said they were still being investigated but pointed to rogue elements abroad possibly linked to the 1994 genocide.
“I think it’s mainly outside the country,” she said. “There are people who have fallen out with the government and have their own agenda. There is a diaspora element — some of them involved in the genocide.”
Rwanda’s genocide experience, in which politicians and broadcasters whipped up tensions leading to mass slaughter, meant it had to be particularly careful with what it allowed media outlets and others to do, she said.
“We cannot allow the media or others to encourage violence,” she said. “But our security and intelligence agencies are very good and very much on top of the problem.”
Rwanda has been heavily dependent on Western and multilateral aid that until last year made up more than 50 percent of its budget. This had come down to 40 percent in the upcoming financial year as new investments came in.
These included Chinese and Korean projects as well as hotel projects with Dubai’s troubled state-linked Dubai World, which had been scaled back in the last year.
Mushikiwabo said there were no signs yet of Western countries cutting aid commitments to Rwanda because of financial difficulties at home, but she was keenly aware of the shift in power to emerging nations.
Rwanda was opening embassies in Singapore, Abu Dhabi and elsewhere and doubling its New Delhi diplomatic staff.
“There’s no doubt the money is in the East,” she said. “It’s a new challenge and one we have to adapt to. It’s totally different to five years ago.”
But Rwanda also takes its reputation in Western capitals very seriously.
Like several other nations, it has contracted a Western PR consultancy to help. The interview in London was offered up swiftly after a story on rule of law in Rwanda that made reference to investor concerns .
“I think it’s necessary to do business these days,” said Mushikiwabo, who herself once worked in the PR industry. “But we have a saying: “just because a woman wears make-up doesn’t mean that she wasn’t good-looking to begin with”.”