December 2, 2021

Earlier this year, Baroness Kennedy was contacted by the two daughters of Paul Rusesabagina — human rights campaigner, winner of the US Presidential Medal of Freedom and real-life hero of the film Hotel Rwanda. The pair sought help with their father’s case; he had been kidnapped and jailed by the regime of Paul Kagame, the Rwandan dictator infamous for his government’s use of assassination, imprisonment and smears to silence his critics.

After investigating the charges of terrorism levelled against Rusesabagina, the Labour peer and human rights lawyer concluded there were serious concerns over the rendition and the trial. “We expanded the Commonwealth to include Rwanda on grounds they would follow the rule of law and correct standards but the country has kidnapped a man in poor health, who was ill-treated in custody and denied a fair trial,” said Kennedy, who is also director of the International Bar Association Human Rights Institute.

Her views are shared by other prominent human rights campaigners. “Illegal rendition and false arrest are a travesty of justice that demand a response from the West,” said Bill Browder, the financier who started pushing for worldwide imposition of ‘Magnitsky legislation’ to sanction despots, killers and torturers after the murder of his lawyer in Russia. “This law was meant for cases like this where a government goes so far beyond acceptable behaviour.”

Kennedy hosted a meeting last week in parliament with Carine and Anaise Kanimba to press for sanctions on the Rwandan officials behind the illegal rendition and false imprisonment of their adoptive father at which Browder spoke. She was contacted, however, by former aid minister Andrew Mitchell — whom she admires despite their party differences due to his usually robust stand on such issues — who objected to her stance. “I fear Andrew has allowed his friendships to cloud his judgment,” she tells me. “I also celebrated the arrival of Kagame after the genocide but he has not lived up to expectations. It was the same with Mugabe in Zimbabwe. Unfortunately, Andrew seems to have locked in his hopes.”

Mitchell has long been a strong and vocal supporter of the Rwandan government. Indeed, he even calls Kagame a hero, despite so much evidence of human rights abuses, his crushing of democracy and disruptive meddling in neighbouring nations. Such is Mitchell’s steadfast defence of the brutal central African regime that one colleague described him mockingly to me as their MP for Kigali. Now — as the Government slides in polls over its handling of sleaze — the veteran Tory politician is facing uncomfortable questions after taking a lucrative consultancy from a bank run by close allies of Kagame.

Mitchell is being paid £39,600 a year by SouthBridge for just nine days advice “on African matters”. This fee, working out at an impressive £4,400 a day, is one of six consultancies that earn him £182,600 annually — more than double his salary as MP for Sutton Coldfield. Intriguingly the investment bank — based in Rwanda, France and Ivory Coast — is run by a former Rwandan finance minister, while the managing director of its operations in the country’s capital previously oversaw the ruling party’s sprawling commercial interests.

Details of Mitchell’s starring role in what has been branded “the Tories’ second-jobs gravy train” particularly alarms human rights activists, because the 65-year-old MP — who lost his Cabinet post after allegations he called a Downing Street police officer a “pleb” — chairs the All Party Parliamentary Group on Rwanda. “I’m amazed he can’t see how bad this looks,” said Michela Wrong, author of Do Not Disturb, an expose of the Rwandan regime. “Mitchell’s always been Kagame’s most dogged British defender, never missing a chance to justify the regime’s acts.”

Wrong, like some Rwandan dissidents, is particularly disturbed by the apparent conflict of interest when Mitchell heads the all-party group while “taking money from an institution so close to this truly sinister regime”. The Tory MP — who took up the post in March last year — has told friends “there is no institutional link to the Rwandan state”. But Wrong argues that his financial ties to SouthBridge, with two of Kagame’s most trusted former financial aides at its helm, undermines claims of independence. “Before, he could at least assure his critics no money had changed hands — that he was speaking purely from passionate personal conviction. No more.”

SouthBridge has two managing partners: Donald Kaberuka, who was Rwanda’s finance minister for eight years before becoming president of the African Development Bank, and Lionel Zinsou, a former prime minister of Benin, based in Paris. Kaberuka was a core member of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), which took power after the genocide in 1994 when an estimated 800,000 people were slaughtered and has since run the country. He remained close to the Rwandan dictator as a member of the presidential advisory panel.

During Kaberuka’s time as finance minister, the United Nations accused Rwanda of looting the Democratic Republic of Congo’s vast mineral wealth to fund its armed forces after Kagame sparked two wars that left millions dead. Rwandan troops were accused of slaughtering fleeing refugees among other atrocities. One unusually-damning UN report said revenues from the systematic extraction of gold and diamonds by Rwanda “directly influence national decision-making” and were “hidden from the scrutiny of international organisations”. Another UN inquiry identified 617 separate incidents of war crimes committed by 21 rebel groups and eight foreign armies in the maelstrom of horror.

SouthBridge’s managing director in Kigali is John Birungi, former chief executive of a key RPF-run conglomerate with wide interests stretching from property to security. It has been accused in the past of trading in conflict minerals, while also leasing jets for Kagame despite the impoverished nation’s dependence on foreign aid — including about £900m from Britain since Kagame took control of this nation of 13m people.

The bank lists three offices on its website in Abidjan, Paris and Kigali. Curiously, the telephone numbers given for Abidjan and Paris did not function when I called them, while the line in Rwanda went unanswered on several attempts. The address given for the Paris office turned out to be a four-story building in an upmarket district near the Arc de Triomphe. There were no signs on display for SouthBridge. “I’ve never heard of it being a bank,” said a neighbour. “There are flats at the top but I’m not aware of any offices or businesses inside.”

The Ivory Coast office is in a three-storey building that looks empty on the top two storeys with a rental sign outside. Three non-security staff were visible on the ground floor during a recent visit. The office manager declined to discuss staff numbers but said they had also a Paris office.

Mitchell’s support for Rwanda dismays those fighting for democracy and the families of citizens falling foul of the regime. David Himbara, Kagame’s former economic adviser and now a prominent dissident, describes Mitchell as “indifferent to the regime’s atrocities” and one of its “diehard supporters”. Another exile who has met him told me they were disgusted to hear Mitchell echo regime propaganda, even lecturing them on the need for stability in their own nation. “I felt so insulted — like he was saying we were all animals who would devour each other.”

His enthusiasm for this despotic regime has led Mitchell into previous controversy. On the MP’s last day as aid minister in 2012, he restored funding for Rwanda after it had been suspended for supporting militia in Congo engaged in mass murder, rape and forcing almost half a million people from their homes. The move was condemned by MPs and over-turned briefly by his successor — although the UK remains a backer of Kagame, who is even hosting the next Commonwealth summit.

Mitchell has registered his interests as required. These show he also took a three-day trip in 2019 to visit Rwanda’s army academy, funded by its ministry of defence — valued at £5,092 for flights and hotels — despite evidence that the military has been heavily involved in atrocities and the looting of neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo. The MP says he spoke on human rights to senior military officers from across Africa at a conference.

Mitchell is also friends with Emmanuel Ndahiro, the Rwandan president’s former doctor and intelligence chief whose phone number was linked in court to an attempted assassination in South Africa. Earlier this year, Freedom House, the US human rights group, cited Rwanda alongside China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey as one of the world’s most prolific practitioners of “transnational repression”. Ndahiro was also named in the Panama Papers as one-time director of an offshore firm reported to own a private jet.

SouthBridge, meanwhile, said it was a respected pan-African investment bank that operated in several countries on the continent. “We make sure that we are in compliance with all applicable legislation and regulations, including rules that may concern our trusted external advisors,” said Caroline Ndirangu, Director of Finance and Administration.

Mitchell insists his lucrative SouthBridge consultancy is not linked to his position on Rwanda, saying it involved “a new and highly-respected pan-African bank chaired by a distinguished former President of the African Development Bank”. Although he declined to comment on “commercially confidential matters” he added that he was happy to give one example: “We advise on debt risk and how to minimise it. My input is drawn from my experience as a former director of an insurance company and many years in investment banking as well as my knowledge of Africa.”

I have long disagreed with Mitchell on aid, yet respected his intentions and ideals despite our differences. He says his support for Rwandans is “heartfelt and genuine” — although others would argue that there is a world of difference between supporting Kagame and supporting the citizens of this blighted country. Regardless, to take money from an institution run by people so close to a cruel dictator at the very least looks bad, especially as he becomes an increasingly lonely voice defending this loathsome regime.

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