NBA courts controversy with Rwandan president all-star appearance
The league and Raptors GM hosted President Paul Kagame at an NBA all-star weekend event in Toronto.
Controversial Rwandan President Paul Kagame attended the NBA Africa summit in Toronto Saturday with league commissioner Adam Silver and Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri, drawing sharp remarks from critics of his regime.
The man dubbed “the global elite’s favourite strongman” in a 2013 New York Times headline delivered a speech during the private event at the Art Gallery of Ontario, before being whisked away from a service entrance in a black SUV.
While lauded for Rwanda’s economic growth and eased ethnic tensions, Kagame’s government has been accused of suppressing dissent and assassinating political opponents in Rwanda and abroad.
“This is an embarrassment, really,” said David Himbara, a former aide turned critic of Kagame who now lives in Toronto. He said the Raptors and NBA should apologize for associating with an autocrat accused of perpetrating violence and human rights abuses in Rwanda and neighbouring countries.
“How do you bring somebody suspected of doing genocide in Congo to the NBA all-star game?” he asked, referring to Rwandan military activities during the war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Pierre-Claver Nkinamubanzi, president of the Rwandan Congress of Canada, said many among the roughly 5,000 Rwandan expatriates in the country are disappointed by Kagame’s visit and his welcome by the NBA.
“The president of Rwanda is among those who most certainly do not deserve to be allowed on Canadian soil and much less to be greeted at a sport event symbolizing the greatest human values,” he said in a phone interview.
When contacted by the Star on Saturday, Ujiri said he has worked with Kagame to promote the NBA among young people through the GM’s network of camps called Giants of Africa. “There is no controversy,” Ujiri said, suggesting that the focus this week should be on the all-star celebrations.
It’s not clear if Kagame will attend the NBA all-star game on Sunday at the Air Canada Centre. A league spokesman declined to comment.
During his speech at the AGO, Kagame thanked Ujiri as well as African players for their work in promoting basketball on the continent, according to the Twitter account for his office. He then engaged in a one-on-one conversation with CNN political anchor Wolf Blitzer, though it’s not clear if the interview was on behalf of the U.S. network.
Kagame has been at a number of events in Toronto this week attended by the city’s sporting and business elite and met more than 80 members of the Young Presidents’ Organization business group at a breakfast alongside retired general Roméo Dallaire.
A spokesperson for YPO and for Dallaire declined to comment. The Star spoke with a YPO member who said Kagame gave a speech on government corruption in Africa.
Dallaire, who commanded a UN peacekeeping force in Rwanda between 1993 and 1994 that tried to prevent genocide by Hutu extremists against Tutsis and Hutus, credited Kagame during his remarks at the breakfast with ending the slaughter before it cost even more lives.
The president has been credited with ending the genocidal violence that gripped the country when he marched to the capital as a guerrilla leader in 1994. Under Kagame’s rule, Rwanda has seen strong economic growth — GDP has risen in annual bursts as high as 8 per cent since the mid-1990s — and rising school attendance, while also cutting child mortality. Former U.S. president Bill Clinton reportedly said Kagame “freed the heart and the mind of his people.”
Nkinamubanzi and others, meanwhile, accuse Kagame and his Rwandan Patriotic Front party of running a dictatorship that abuses human rights, denies press freedoms and constrains opposition parties. He also condemns Kagame’s efforts to extend his regime that has persisted for more than 16 years. Kagame was re-elected president in 2010 with more than 90 per cent of the vote.
Protests greet Kagame wherever he goes, despite the leader’s reputation for achieving economic victories in impoverished Rwanda, Nkinamubanzi added.
“He is doing that at the expense of political openness. Those who are benefiting from the economy will quietly support him.”
Officials with Kagame’s office have not said if his visit is private; there is no indication that he will meet with Canadian political leaders.
The U.S. State Department and the UN have cited reports that Kagame has helped train and equip Burundian rebels aiming to overthrow the president of the east African country and neighbour to Rwanda.
Ujiri, who was born in Nigeria, held a host of Giants of Africa basketball camps across the continent last summer. The Globe and Mail reported last fall that Kagame’s son, Ian Kagame, attended Ujiri’s camp in the Rwandan capital of Kigali, arriving in an armed motorcade. President Kagame also hosted Ujiri for dinner, the newspaper reported.