Nearly a month on from the initial incident and “plebgate” is still at the top of the political agenda. During Prime Minister’s Questions Ed Milliband claimed that Andrew Mitchell was “toast” over his altercation with police at the gates of Downing Street. Now it appears that Mitchell denied swearing at all during the incident, something he had previously admitted to.
“Plebgate” has been rumbling along for weeks now with neither Mitchell or Cameron prepared to do the honourable thing (honour and politics have never been easy bedfellows). Despite the account of events recorded in the police log, Cameron continues to stand by Mitchell, effectively smearing the police as liars in the process (either Mitchell is lying or the police are, clearly Cameron believes it is the latter). However, whilst the media and political focus has been on Mitchell and his verbal assault on a police officer, his record as International Development Secretary has not been subject to anywhere near as much public scrutiny.
During his time as Development Secretary, Andrew Mitchell developed a close friendship with the president of Rwanda, Paul Kagame. Internal documents revealed as a result of a Freedom of Information request underline the strength of the relationship between the two men. One memo stated:
“SofS [Mr Mitchell]… recalled how they had recently discussed that Rwanda is an excellent development and delivers results… We will continue to provide a significant proportion of the UK’s aid as budget support. We will continue to provide high levels of general budget support (of £37m annually).”
The memo continues:
“Secretary of State said this reflected the UK’s long-term support to Rwanda (including from the PM, who had visited as leader of the Opposition in 2006). Pres Kagame was very grateful.”
In one of his last acts as Secretary, Mitchell ordered £8m to be released in September with a further £8m in December for education and food security. This despite previously blocking Britain’s £37m annual contribution to the Rwandan government in July. The reason for the block? A visit to the Kivus region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo where Kagame’s forces have been accused of atrocities, including mass rape.
And here is the real problem, for Kagame’s human rights record is at best questionable, and at worst deserving of a prolonged visit to The Hague. The allegations placed at his door are particularly shocking and disturbing, including the accusation by a French judge that he ordered the assassination of his predecessor, Juvenal Habyarimana. An assassination that sparked the 1994 genocide that shocked the world.
In 2008, in an article called “A flawed hero“, The Economist suggested he was even more of an oppressive force than Robert Mugabe:
Although he vigorously pursues his admirers in Western democracies, he allows less political space and press freedom at home than Robert Mugabe does in Zimbabwe. He may be planning to bring Rwanda out of poverty in a generation but his prime goal is to maintain his Tutsi government in power until it is certain that the Tutsi people will not be massacred again. Anyone who poses the slightest political threat to the regime is dealt with ruthlessly.
Indeed, Human Rights Watch reports that:
…after years of intimidation and a further crackdown on independent media in 2010, there are almost no independent Rwandan journalists operating in Rwanda. Several leading independent journalists remain in exile…Threats and intimidation of human rights defenders by individuals close to the government, combined with a degree of self-censorship, have ensured that few Rwandan civil society groups publicly criticize the government’s human rights record.
And as for Rwanda’s involvement in eastern Congo (again, from The Economist article referred to above):
“…where some 5m people are said to have died in conflict, a civil war in which Rwanda has been, and remains, deeply involved. Mr Kagame justifies his intervention on the grounds of Rwanda’s own security—but his army reportedly made £20m a month from mining coltan in 2000 and still exports quantities of diamonds and gold that were mined in Congo.”
Despite all these concerns about Kagame from human rights groups (and concerns raised by his ministerial colleague), Andrew Mitchell still decided to release funding. There are those that make the argument that we shouldn’t be releasing funds to foreign nations at all in the current economic climate. I disagree, I think we should fulfil our obligations in terms of delivering aid. However, I do not think that this extends to the delivery of aid to dictators and human rights abusers. Consequently, I do not see how we can continue to provide funding to the regime in Rwanda when they are engaged in slaughter across the border in the DRC.
In terms of Mitchell’s position within the government, it is clear that he has to go. Effectively smearing the police is bad enough (it should be reason enough for his dismissal) but continuing to provide aid to a despotic regime engaged in the most horrific human rights abuses makes “plebgate” appear as if it were an entertaining sideshow. That this causes a storm of controversy whilst the mass rape and slaughter in the DRC provokes barely a murmur, underlines the lamentable state of political debate in this country. One hopes that now the Labour party have raised the issue it will lead to more serious questions about both Andrew Mitchell’s role in government and this government’s foreign aid policy. And I do mean serious questions, not the kind of swivel-eyed lunacy that normally dominates discussions on foreign aid. Although I guess that, like Mitchell doing the honourable thing, is too much to expect.
Shortly after writing this post, Andrew Mitchell resigned (chalk that up as a ‘kill’?). However, the resignation was not over Rwanda but “plebgate”. It seems to me that, in a twisted way, “plebgate” offered Mitchell a handy get out as scrutiny grew over the release of aid to Rwanda. I would not be surprised if this scrutiny dies down now that he has resigned, indeed, I expect it to. After all the furore over “plebgate” and the trouble it caused, it appears it has actually provided a convenient cover for the Tories. So, the Tories are happy, the media are happy (they got a scalp), Labour are happy (they also got a scalp), the voters are happy (he got what he deserved for being rude to the police) and the people of Rwanda and the DRC? Well, I’m sure they will soon be forgotten about. It’s what we do best.