By Edmund Blair and Jenny Clover
(Reuters) – Rwandan President Paul Kagame may dress in the sharp suits of a company CEO, but his language can be more like a drill sergeant when he grills his cabinet on its performance.
“When you speak I find myself becoming impatient, almost to the point of being annoyed,” the former military intelligence commander publicly berated a minister last month at an annual meeting of top officials on modernizing the tiny African state.
Western nations offer only modest remonstrations over what they see as democratic shortcomings in Rwanda, thankful for the oasis of order that has replaced the genocide they failed to prevent 20 years ago this month.
But they quietly express concern that Kagame’s assertive style at home is being translated into brazen meddling in a volatile region and threatening a potential model for Africa.
In 2012, a U.N. report accused Kagame’s government of backing a rebel group in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, prompting the West to halt some aid; economic growth took a hit.
Now Rwanda is blamed for sending hit squads to assassinate opponents in South Africa, killing one of two alleged targets.
“It seems to me that they are getting less risk averse,” said one senior Western diplomat, who asked not to be named so he could speak more openly. “The risk they run is sowing the seed for rupture with the international community.”
Rwanda, which insists the government that has reformed the still aid-dependent economy is democratically accountable, vigorously denies both accusations of foreign meddling.
Public comments from Kagame and other officials have done little to change Western views of Rwanda’s complicity, but criticism has remained muted, and more so with the anniversary of the genocide that Kagame is credited with ending.
“There is an upswing of international guilt about 1994,” the diplomat said. “There is pressure. I don’t think it is increasing and this year there is a dip.”
After exiled former spy chief Patrick Karegeya was found dead in a Johannesburg hotel in January, Kagame said “traitors” should expect consequences. A Rwandan website quoted Defense Minister James Kabarebe saying: “When you choose to be a dog, you die like one.”
In March, armed men broke into the Johannesburg home of former Rwandan army chief General Faustin Kayumba Nyamwasa, another exiled critic. Nyamwasa, who survived an attempt on his life in South Africa in 2010, was not in his house at the time.
Diplomats and analysts said the killing and attempted assassination in short succession showed Kagame feared exiled opponents were trying to unseat him using links inside Rwanda.
“His number one threat is potential military dissidents in his own party,” said central Africa expert Jason Stearns.
South Africa, a regional superpower, expelled three Rwandan diplomats over the attacks. Kigali, which said South Africa had produced no evidence, reciprocated by throwing out six.
The U.S. special envoy to the region, Russ Feingold, said in a brief statement he was “very concerned about the tension”, but was unavailable for further comment when asked by Reuters.
Rwanda lives in an unstable neighborhood, next to war-ravaged east Congo and politically troubled Burundi, which endured decades of ethnic massacres into the 1990s. Nearby are South Sudan and the Central African Republic, both mired in conflict. [Next page]