Carnegie Mellon University and President Kagame: A venture capital romance

by Rebecca Cech

Rwandan President Kagame and Carnegie Mellon University’s new relationship has the whiff of a celebrity marriage. There’s an unmistakable aura of money and convenience when powerful public figures suddenly get moon-eyes and pretend to look past the sum of their mutual assets at some pure and ideal reason for their union written in the stars.

Whether you are claiming undying love or revealing plans to produce a “university community open to the exchange of ideas” together, forgive us if we notice that this partnership appears to have been forged in publicity stunt heaven and reads like a trashy venture capital romance novel. Perhaps it was fate.

When you take Kagame’s Rwanda, with its clinical orderliness, access to bucketloads of no-questions-asked international aid and unchecked state power, entrepreneurs like CMU are bound to come a-courtin’. I believe it was Jane Austen who said, “It is a truth universally acknowledged that an African war criminal in possession of a presidency must be in want of a Western institution whose reputation can lend him international credibility.”

The plot is painfully familiar. Quick, someone pop the cork and think of an appropriate toast for the new couple that sounds sincere. And, as CMU throws her arms around Kagame in an exaggerated show of public affection, for godsakes, don’t be gauche and mention the dirty money she is coincidentally fingering in his back pocket or point out the embarrassing way she’s twittering on about what an international, adventurous and humanitarian character this new African commitment proves she is.

CMU and Kagame went public about their relationship on Sept. 15, 2011, just a day before the president arrived in Pittsburgh to deliver a commemorative speech at the university and take part in a ceremonial signing to celebrate their dewy, contractual bliss. We know, however, that the romance began years earlier when they met in 2007 at the Connect Africa Summit.

According to the June 2011 publication by ISOKO Institute (“Africa’s Leading Free Market Think Tank”), the investment frontier in Africa is like water for chocolate, ready to melt entrepreneurial hearts everywhere – or, as they less amorously put it, “ripe for business.” At the summit, the African Development Bank lit some candles and put on some lilting Vivaldi.

Suddenly, CMU looked across the board table, admired how the light fell across Kagame’s general hat and felt strangely “impressed by Rwanda’s remarkable growth.” Kagame, for his part, enjoyed the salon-fresh smell of CMU’s hair and the expansive effect the institution promised to have on his country’s “knowledge hub.”

Before you could say “hail to the cupid of convenient wedlock,” the president was down on bended knee, gazing longingly into CMU’s prestige, asking “will you open a CMU branch campus with me in Kigali, if I underwrite all your operating costs, paying you nearly $100 million over the next decade?” Swoon!

Despite four years of private courting, CMU’s press release about its collaboration with Kagame had the public timing of a shotgun wedding. With less than a week to respond, letters of concern went out from CMU faculty and from the African Great Lakes Coalition too late to influence any discussion surrounding the contract. The deed was irrevocably done by the time anyone with a cautionary opinion could respond.

On the day commemorating the happy union, 40 protesters, including some students from the university, held signs and shouted, “CMU, shame on you,” for the duration of the president’s visit. This can be a mood-killer, as CMU’s honeymoon-is-over tone soon reflected.

Before the event, the university’s fawning publications put Kagame in the front and center, crediting him with a large part of Rwanda’s “success story.” Afterward, when criticism and curiosity began to mount, CMU changed its assessment of Rwanda’s status to “it’s complicated,” dodging questions about the many indictments against the Rwandan president, including the fact that he’s considered by Reporters Without Borders a “predator of the press,” by BBC and Scotland Yard a would-be assassin of critics abroad, by the UN Mapping Report of 2010 a war criminal responsible for massacres that may prove in court to be genocide, and by the Spanish Court a criminal implicated in mass murder and terrorism.

I wish someone could sit with CMU over a cup of something steamy and deliver this warning: “Yes, he is powerful. Yes, he is monied. Yes, he is intelligent. I’ll take your word for it that he has a huge investment territory. It’s good to have things in common: You’re both entrepreneurial, you both receive an obscene amount of money from the U.S. government, and your Western allies seem to get along.

“However, I would gently urge you to consider the fact that this man is most certainly, besides all the things that make you go gaga, an accomplished war criminal in a region positively littered with the bodies of his victims. CMU, you have signed up for the trials of a mob wife. I know that you’re determined to make this relationship work and that you think his ‘business’ elsewhere won’t affect what you have together privately on your campus.

“However, even if you never look directly into the trunk of his car, it’s a safe bet you will hear and see things that will trouble your conscience. From what I gather, Kagame does not tolerate open and free spaces for inquiry, dissent or criticism of any kind. He’s gifted at keeping people quiet through legal shams, disappearances, assassinations and plain, old-fashioned intimidation.

“What will silence you, if you ever get up the gumption to say something? And how long are you prepared to pretend you don’t see victimization, in the face of evidence, to protect Kagame’s name – a name that is now associated with yours? I hope you know what you’re doing. Claiming ignorance or looking strategically the other way has a nasty habit of coming back to roost. Just ask Penn State.”

Rebecca Cech authors www.congostory.org, using culture, art, scholarly studies in post-colonialism and four generations of family life in Congo to inform her advocacy.