Just days after Rwanda’s Ministry of Health announced it would be screening all visitors from the United States and Spain for Ebola, the country’s government has reversed course. Both Rwandan President Paul Kagame and Health Minister Agnes Binagwaho announced the termination of the policy Wednesday on their respective Twitter accounts, with Binagwaho taking sole responsibility for the initial proposal.
According to the original Health Ministry policy, introduced on Sunday, people who have visited the U.S. or Spain within the past 22 days were “required to report their medical condition – regardless of whether they are experiencing symptoms of Ebola – by telephone for the duration of their visit to Rwanda (if less than 21 days), or for the first 21 days of their visit to Rwanda,” according to a posting on the website of Rwanda’s U.S. embassy.
Rwanda probably doesn’t have much to worry about when it comes to Ebola. The small country in East Africa is located more than 2,500 miles from the center of the epidemic, and it has not yet had a single confirmed case of the virus. Yet the country also isn’t known to take any chances when it comes to health risks.
Kagame – a powerful figure in Rwanda since the 1994 genocide – has made improving health outcomes a key objective for his domestic policy. In 2000, shortly after he became president, Kagame unveiled the national “Vision 2020” policy initiative, a suite of major reforms intended to make the still genocide-scarred Rwanda into a stable and relatively prosperous country. Among other things, that meant expanding health care. The country now has universal health insurance, and it has managed to bring its life expectancy up significantly higher than even its pre-genocide peak.
But there’s another side to the Kagame administration. The president’s ruthless policies and expansive security state have led The New York Times to label him as “the global elite’s favorite strongman.” Kagame has, for example, a habit of shunting unwanted members of society off to a so-called “rehabilitation center” on an island in Lake Kivu. While the government says that stays on the island are voluntary, Rwandans sometimes quietly refer to it as their “Alcatraz” or “Guantanamo.” Kagame, who led a guerilla war against Rwanda’s prior regime, is also alleged to have had dissidents assassinated.
The recently rejected Ebola screenings policy may first seem in character, given Kagame’s reputation for maintaining tight security, and his focus on keep the country clean and healthy. Yet Kagame tweeted on Thursday that he had nothing to do with it, and even teasingly scolded his health minister, saying that she sometimes acts first and thinks later.
The Rwandan genocide was the grisly conclusion of three years of civil war fought between a guerilla group known as the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) and the ruling government at the time. The RPF – which Kagame led for much of the war – was formed by refugees belonging to the Tutsi ethnic group, in response to oppression by the majority Hutu government. The assassination of Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana, himself a Hutu, prompted an outbreak of slaughter across the country, motivated by both politics and longstanding ethnic divisions. Roughly 800,000 Rwandans, most of them Tutsis, died in the ensuing chaos. Once the RPF seized control of the Rwandan capital, some 2 million Hutus fled, taking refuge in the country then known as Zaire (now called the Democratic Republic of Congo).