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MasterCard Foundation scholarship recipients at Carnegie Mellon University–Africa last semester. The foundation announced a $275 million investment in the Kigali, Rwanda, campus.

Courtesy of CMU-Africa

Carnegie Mellon University–Africa in Kigali, Rwanda, is the only American campus on the entire continent. The graduate school has offered two-year master’s degrees through CMU’s renowned college of engineering since 2011.

Yesterday, CMU, the Rwandan government and the MasterCard Foundation announced a “transformational” $275.7 million investment in the institution, and in higher education development across Africa.

According to a statement from the university, $175 million of the foundation’s investment will go to expanding engineering and technology education programs at the Kigali campus and to funding the institution “in perpetuity,” in part by establishing over 300 scholarships and aiming to grow the university’s annual enrollment by more than a third.

The other $100 million will be used to establish the Center for the Inclusive Digital Transformation of Africa, a hub for a network of at African universities across the continent that will receive funding for faculty development, cutting-edge technology and engineering programs, and other initiatives. As of now there are seven universities participating in the program; CMU hopes to grow that to 10.

The MasterCard Foundation—whose work is focused on empowering youth in Africa and Canada’s Indigenous populations—began funding scholarships for CMU-Africa in 2016 and has been involved with the institution ever since.

In March, the university received the last installment of a 10-year, $95 million deal with the government, which, until now, had been largely responsible for funding the college. CMU-Africa director Allen Robinson said the MasterCard Foundation’s investment will help sustain the program well into the future, ease the funding burden from Rwanda’s government and allow CMU-Africa to transition to need-blind admissions.

“Our mission is to be as inclusive as possible,” Robinson said. “The Rwandan government has gotten us this far, but this partnership is crucial to letting us grow and continue our work.”

But CMU-Africa has been followed by a cloud of controversy over its partnership with a Rwandan government led by president Paul Kagame, who has been accused of a litany of human rights abuses.

Jeffrey Williams, an English professor at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh, said he opposed CMU’s partnership with the Rwandan government.

“These are not fly-by-night political arguments; these are serious charges,” he said. “From an intellectual and moral standpoint, we have to ask the question, what do we want to attach ourselves to?”

From ‘Modest’ Beginnings to Continental Ambitions

CMU-Africa was established as CMU-Rwanda in 2011 as a partnership between the Rwandan government and the Pittsburgh-based university renowned for its engineering and technology programs.

Bruce Krogh, a retired professor of electrical and computer engineering at Carnegie Mellon, was CMU-Africa’s director for its first six years. He described moving to Kigali in 2011 to lead the college when it was a small graduate program of just 24 students—23 Rwandans and one Kenyan—housed on two floors of a government-owned telecommunications building across the street from the U.S. ambassador’s house.

In 2019 CMU-Africa moved into a new $10 million campus financed by the Rwandan government. Last year, the college enrolled over 150 students from more than 20 African nations.

“It was very modest relative to where it is now,” Krogh said. “When we began with Rwandan students, Carnegie Mellon did not have a recognizable name on the continent … Now it has this presence and visibility and is attracting applicants from all over Africa.”

“I think the vision from the start was to be pan-African in our reach,” Robinson said. “CMU is definitely interested in having a global impact; this is part of our global strategy. CMU-Africa is a unique opportunity for us to have impact in ways that other universities, which are focused in other regions of the world, don’t.”

Partners in Development

In addition to the increased funding for CMU-Africa, MasterCard’s commitment to fund a network of initiatives in higher education at existing African universities will enable the program to expand its reach and help CMU realize its vision of global impact, Robinson said.

While CMU’s is the only U.S. campus in Africa, other American institutions have sought to invest in higher education on the continent by working with local institutions. Michigan State University, for one, has a long history of partnerships and investments in African higher education, often in conjunction with U.S. government agencies but always in collaboration with universities on the continent, such as the University of Nigeria Nsukka. Amy Jamison, co-director of MSU's Alliance for African Partnership, said these collaborations are essential to making sure higher education investments are both sustainable and equitable.

“Higher education development used to be, the Global North leads and Africa follows. That’s not the case anymore, and it can’t be the case,” Jamison said. “We really have seen the development of in-country partners have an impact on the ground.”

Fabrice Jaumont, the education attaché to the French embassy in the U.S. and the author of Unequal Partners: American Foundations and Higher Education Development in Africa (Palgrave-MacMillan, 2016), said that in the heyday of Western funding for such initiatives, investments in African higher education tended to be concentrated in wealthier, English-speaking countries such as South Africa and Nigeria.

“The money only went to a happy few,” he said. “Intentions were good, but they were creating an elite group of universities in Africa that got all the funding.”

Jaumont said that investments from foundations in African higher education peaked in the early 2000s and have waned over the past decade. But he said the growth of the tech sector and computer science, areas where CMU prides itself on being a leading name, has led to renewed interest from foundations like MasterCard—and, he hopes, more equity in their investments.

“Higher education investments can be engines of development if done collaboratively with African partners,” he said. “This is a good sign … now is a good time to return to this.”

A Deal With a Dictator

When CMU-Rwanda was first announced, the initiative drew as much criticism for its partnership with Kagame’s government as it did praise for its groundbreaking nature.

Kagame, who took power after the Rwandan genocide in 1997, is sometimes hailed as heroic for his part in ending the atrocities of the mid-’90s. But despite his stature as a darling of Western business and governments, accusations continue to haunt him and his Rwandan Patriotic Front, from allegations of assisting in the mass killing of Hutu refugees in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to imprisoning, intimidating and even assassinating political opponents.

A group of CMU students in Pittsburgh protested the opening of the Kigali campus in 2011, and a coalition of human rights groups wrote an open letter to then CMU president Jared Cohon expressing concern over the “human rights abuses and threats to democracy” they allege had been carried out by Kagame’s government.

David Himbara says he witnessed those abuses firsthand. He worked for Kagame from 2000 to 2002 and again from 2006 to 2010, first as his principal private secretary and then as a senior policy adviser. He wanted to use his education and experience as an economic consultant to help rebuild his native country, but he said Kagame became more aggressive and controlling over the course of his time working under him.

In 2008, Himbara said, Kagame demanded that he go along with a manufactured economic growth statistic of 11 percent, an impossible number for the small country in a time of global recession. That same year, Himbara said, he saw Kagame personally beat two government employees for questioning him. Himbara, disillusioned and frightened, fled.

“At that point, the gloves had come off,” he said. “I decided to leave and never come back.”

Himbara now lives in self-imposed exile in Canada, where he says he still fears retribution or even assassination by Kagame’s men. His brother, Kagame’s former head of security, was sentenced to 20 years in prison in 2013, which Himbara believes was retaliation for his own criticism.

When he heard about CMU’s partnership with the Rwandan government a year after fleeing, Himbara—who attended Southern University in Louisiana and had possessed a belief in the righteousness of Western higher education—said he was “shocked.”

“I had no idea that universities could be so opportunistic,” he said. “It’s a totalitarian state. These people at Carnegie Mellon, have they no shame?”

Robinson noted that Carnegie Mellon, as a nonprofit, does not net any money from the CMU-Africa initiative, and he said the university’s interest in the project is purely impact-driven.

“There are a lot of problems to be solved in Africa, and universities can play a big role in that,” he said. “We believe this is the right thing to do.”

Both Krogh and Robinson also noted that CMU didn’t come up with the idea for its Kigali campus.

“CMU did not choose Rwanda; Rwanda chose CMU,” Krogh said. “The university is enjoying a unique opportunity initiated by the government.”

Himbara, who was working for Kagame when the idea was first floated in 2007, believes the Rwandan president had an ulterior motive in seeking out CMU as a partner: not jobs and education for his people, but prestige for his government through Western investment.

“Kagame collects stars to help make him shine,” he said. “Carnegie Mellon was part of this.”

“We’re partnering with the government of Rwanda, not with Kagame,” Robinson said when asked about the criticism. “Our mission is to educate students in Africa and to solve African problems, and the Rwandan government has been one of our important supporters to achieve that mission.”

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