Rwandan President Paul Kagame, who has been accused of human rights violations, drew protesters over the weekend during his visit to University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School.
Kagame was visiting the school to accept an award from the Oxford Business Network for Africa, a student club. Ahead of the May 18 event, Salvator Cusimano, a student in the one-year masters in refugee studies program at Oxford, and Barbara Harrell-Bond, a founding director of the university’s Refugee Studies Centre, wrote a letter to the club, Saïd Dean Peter Tufano, and others, urging them to reconsider the award. They also started an online petition that garnered nearly 6,000 signatures asking the group to refrain from awarding Kagame.
Although disappointed with the outcome—the event went on as planned, and Kagame received the honor—Cusimano says he is satisfied that his efforts and those of the protestors brought attention to bigger issues. “People became aware of a serious situation in the world,” says Cusimano, whose program focuses on the causes and consequences of forced migration. “The event went from being a pat on the back to a critical discussion.”
A United Nations report links the M23 rebel group that is responsible for atrocities in the Democratic Republic of the Congo with senior members of the Rwandan military. Critics say that Kagame also infringes on political and press freedoms and maintains a hostile environment to those who oppose his government, according to the U.K. newspaper, The Independent. Kagame strongly denies involvement in M23 and condemned the UN’s accusations.
Despite the protests, more than 350 people attended the fifth annual Oxford Africa Business Conference, where Kagame gave the keynote address. Kagame was the first winner of the Distinction of Honor for African Growth.
“We chose to honor President Kagame because of his economic development initiative, which is focused on policy and tactics in Rwanda to create a more open market, so people can experience the benefits of trade,” says Sara Leedom, the co-chair of the Oxford Business Network for Africa and an MBA student.
Rwanda’s economy is now growing by more than 11 percent, and the country is slated to meet most of its UN Millennium Development Goals to move many of its citizens out of poverty, according to a statement from the student-led Oxford Business Network for Africa. The group never considered canceling the event or reneging on the award, Leedom says.
Before the event, the school put out a statement: “President Kagame’s presence in the Saïd Business School does not imply any endorsement by the school or the university of his views or actions. We are aware that President Kagame is considered to be a controversial figure, and there will be the opportunity for those present to challenge him as appropriate.”