Dancing with Dictators

About Cole Parke

As was outlined in part one of this series, evidence shows that American corporate entities are taking advantage of the U.S. Christian Right’s pre-existing relationships with political, religious, and business leaders in Africa in order to advance their economic goals. The dynamic serves to benefit expansion-hungry corporations with increased access to cheap labor and natural resources, and their financial investment (even if the in-country benefactors are primarily the pre-existing economic elite) ingratiates constituents to the pre-existing political elite. But what’s in it for the evangelical brokers in the middle? Here in part two, we examine their curious role.

Pastor Rick Warren at Saddleback Church, September 4, 2005. (Photo: Pastor Rick Warren / Wiki Commons)

California megachurch pastor Rick Warren has played an especially key role in supporting this convergence of church, state, and business on the continent as part of his PEACE Plan development model. According to a report published by the conservative think tank, Hudson Institute, Warren has been “centrally involved” in the process of ushering U.S. corporate interests into Rwanda thanks in large part to his relationships with Christian evangelical businessmen like Joe Ritchie and Dan Cooper.

Warren is quick to distance himself from the trappings of wealth, reminding people, “I drive a 12 year old Ford, have lived in the same house for the last 22 years, bought my watch at Wal-Mart, and I don’t own a boat or a jet.” Nonetheless, he enjoys substantial closeness with many of America’s business elite.

Given this closeness, it’s not surprising that he would be unfazed by the wealth of Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame (Kagame ranks among the top ten richest leaders in Africa, with an estimated net worth of $500 million). However, it is concerning that Warren relentlessly defends Kagame, even as accusations of human rights violations continually mount against him.

President Kagame’s repressive and anti-democratic rule in Rwanda wins him attention from such groups as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and Global Witness. In its 2017 report on Rwanda, Human Rights Watch wrote,

The Rwandan government continues to limit the ability of civil society groups, media, and international human rights organizations to function freely and independently and criticize its policies or practices.

Military and police arbitrarily arrested and detained people in unofficial detention centers, torturing and ill-treating some of them.

The international community’s concern over political repression under Kagame’s leadership was amplified after he successfully altered the Rwandan constitution in 2015 in order to extend his presidency (Kagame has already been in office since 2000). The European Union and the U.S. State Department both condemned the vote, saying Kagame should step down and “foster a new generation of leaders in Rwanda.” In August 2017 Kagame will run for a third seven-year term, and under the newly amended constitution, he has the option of running for two additional five-year terms after that.

The Rwandan constitution also includes Article 114, which states, “A former President of the Republic cannot be prosecuted for treason or serious and deliberate violation of the Constitution when no legal proceedings in respect of that offence were brought against him or her while in office.” This essentially creates lifelong immunity for Kagame — but only in Rwanda. As Stephen Smith, professor of African studies at Duke University, reported in The New York Times, “Mr. Kagame can’t leave office without risking arraignment by the International Criminal Court.” This no doubt serves as further motivation for the extension of his hold on the presidency.

Paul Kagame, President of Rwanda at the World Economic Forum on Africa in Cape Town, South Africa, June 11, 2009. (Photo: Copyright World Economic Forum / Eric Miller)

Kagame’s previous election in 2010 was marred by murder, censorship, and a concerning lack of significant opposition or audible dissent. In the lead up to the election, the opposition Green Party’s deputy leader, André Kagwa Rwisereka, was murdered, as was Jean-Léonard Rugambage, deputy editor of Umuvugizi, a local newspaper that was suspended from publication by the state-run Media High Council after printing a story alleging government involvement in the shooting of a former Rwandan army commander in South Africa. The BBC reported in a 2014 documentary, “Rwanda’s Untold Story,” that in the last 15 years, a dozen prominent Rwandan exiles have been killed or have disappeared.

Nonetheless, Warren remains relentless in his defense of Kagame and insistently denies any corruption or wrongdoing in the country. His support for Kagame serves to help generate support for Kagame’s business goals and give the appearance that he is an upright Christian despite his human rights abuses and anti-democratic efforts.

In 2009, Warren hosted Kagame at Saddleback Church, honoring him with the “International Medal of Peace,” an award that has also been presented to former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and former U.S. President George W. Bush. Recently, Warren participated as a keynote speaker at the annual “Rwanda Cultural Day” in San Francisco in September 2016. During his remarks, Warren doubled down in his defense of Kagame, outlining and dispelling what he’s determined to be the main factors motivating Rwanda’s critics (a group that he describes as small, but loud), including guilt, envy, shame, and resentment.

In 2013, Forbes published a feature on Warren in which he explains his relationship to money: “The Bible teaches that we are to love people and use money, but we often get that reversed and you start loving money and using people to get more money. Money is simply a tool to be used for good.”

Kagame’s human rights violations, along with his calculated efforts to disintegrate Rwanda’s democracy, are a clear contradiction to most any definition of “good.” So what motivates Warren’s steadfast support? His 12-year-old Ford suggests that he isn’t getting any major financial kick-backs out of the deal, but money isn’t the only motivator.

Just as the Christian Right has developed alliances with unlikely political comrades here in the U.S. in order to advance its social agenda, American culture warriors like Rick Warren are angling for increased political access in geographies that offer promising opportunities for dominionist expansion. (For more on dominionism, see PRA Senior Fellow Frederick Clarkson’s Public Eye article, “Dominionism Rising: A Theocratic Movement Hiding in Plain Sight.”)

While Warren helps facilitate connections for Rwanda with U.S. corporations, Kagame is helping to connect Warren with other African leaders. Thanks to these links, Warren has already launched PEACE Plan campaigns in 11 additional countries, furthering the advancement of a development model that could have disastrous effects on the human rights of LGBTQI people and women.

L. Cole Parke is PRA's LGBTQ & Gender Justice Researcher, and has been working at the intersections of faith, gender, and sexuality as an activist, organizer, and scholar for the past ten years. Raised in a military family and a conservative Christian world, Cole studied theology at Texas Lutheran University, earned their Master’s in Conflict Transformation at Eastern Mennonite University’s Center for Justice & Peacebuilding, and traveled throughout the country advocating for LGBTQ justice at conservative religious schools and institutions as a part of the 2008 and 2012 Soulforce Equality Rides.