Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame divides opinion. He is feted as the hero who stopped the genocide that claimed a million lives in 1994, and amazingly rebuilt Rwanda from zero to a role model of economic progress that is now being touted as the “Singapore” of Africa.
World leaders, including Zimbabwe’s Emmerson Mnangagwa, admire Kagame and aspire to share his values and standards.
Mnangagwa has admitted being charmed by the efficient governance systems in Rwanda – prompting him to invite the Rwanda Development Board’s CEO, Clare Akamanzi, to address his officials and captains of industry and learn from their best practice.
Rwanda’s progress has also mesmerised Western leaders, including the former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who called Kagame a “visionary leader”.
The former US President, Bill Clinton, has also said Kagame is “one of the greatest leaders of our time”, while Clare Short, UK’s former Secretary of State for International Development described Kagame as “such a sweetie”.
Critics, however, say Kagame is a feared “dictator” who uses the memory of the 1994 Genocide that was aimed at decimating the minority Tutsi ethnic group, to ruthlessly silence the opposition and any form of dissent.
They say Kagame has displayed “a marked intolerance of the most basic forms of opposition” under the pretence of maintaining ethnic harmony.
But whatever the case, both admirers and foes agree that Rwanda is one of the fastest growing economies in Africa and is a role model.
They also agree that the impact of economic development is so visible in Rwanda than any other country on the African continent.
There is also agreement that at the centre of this incredible economic transformation and political stability is none other than Paul Kagame and his ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF).
“Rwanda has many critics, both admirers and detractors. But they all agree on one thing: the country has made enormous strides in almost all spheres,” said Joseph Rwagatare, a respected columnist in Kigali. “Even detractors cannot hide this fact. Nearly always, the first three quarters of their criticism is devoted to the acknowledgement of Rwanda’s progress.”
Rwagatare continued: “The remaining one quarter contains their scathing attacks, which are merely rehashed stories from the past with little resemblance to reality. In actual fact they are more wishes than fact. The progress is therefore indisputable. The many accolades the country has received in different fields – economic growth, competitiveness, effective government, doing business, and so on – attest to this.”
Kagame commanded the RPF, then a rebel group, which attacked Rwanda in 1990 from Uganda and subsequently seized power in Kigali in July 1994. In the process, he ended the genocide that claimed the lives of an estimated one million people, mainly from the minority Tutsi ethnic group.
Kagame’s officials say when the RPF formed the post-genocide government in July 1994, the country was in ruins and some government offices were located under trees. The country was littered with dead bodies and the infrastructure was completely shattered.
But Rwanda defied the odds, and today the tiny central African country has unbelievably transformed itself. Life is orderly, pavements are clean, and roads are free from the potholes that curse most African countries, Zimbabwe included.
There is order on the roads, unlike Harare which is grappling with the menace of reckless drivers who stubbornly flout traffic regulations. Institutional discrimination has been dismantled, and there is harmony between the Hutu and the Tutsi ethnic groups.
Primary school education is mandatory at state-run schools where children do not pay fees for admission. Tall and spacious buildings are sprouting all over Rwanda, and there is also an explosion in real estate growth.
The World Bank says Rwanda’s strong economic growth has been accompanied by substantial improvements in living standards. The USAID says Rwanda has enjoyed strong economic growth rates, creating new business prospects and lifting people out of poverty.
Rwandan refugees who participated in a UN refugee agency’s “go-and-see” visit almost failed to recognise the country as a result of the extraordinary transformation. But critics say Rwanda, under Kagame, is an authoritarian state where democracy and human rights are trampled upon and dissenters are hunted down.
“There are restrictions on freedom of speech. Pro-government views dominate the domestic media [and] journalists who dare to question the official narrative are harassed or arrested,” says Human Rights Watch. “The authorities detained people unlawfully in unofficial detention centres; some were held incommunicado and tortured.”
Amnesty International shares the same dim view on Kagame’s democratic credentials and point to some examples of violations.
Patrick Karegeya, Rwanda’s former intelligence chief, whom Kagame accused of treason, was found strangled in a South African hotel room on New Year’s Day 2014.
Karegeya’s killers have not been identified, but shortly after the news of the murder broke, Kagame told a prayer breakfast in Kigali: “You can’t betray Rwanda and not get punished for it. Anyone, even those still alive, will reap the consequences. It’s only a matter of time.”
The critics also point to reports of several journalists who have been arrested or killed. They also talk about exiled former army general, Fausin Kayumba Nyamwansa, who has survived assassination attempts in Johannesburg.
There are also reports of Scotland Yard warning some Rwandans living in Britain that “the Rwandan government poses an imminent threat to [their lives]”. T
he critics also point to the famous Umuganda programme,” a community cleanup, held on the last Saturday of every month – the reason why Rwanda is the cleanest country in Africa.
Says Amy Yee, a former Financial Times journalists: “It’s not a volunteer project. Police monitor the streets and can stop Rwandans who aren’t participating and make them clean up on the spot.
Rwandans who don’t participate in the cleanup can be fined 5 000 francs, nearly $6, not a small sum when average income is about $150 a month.”
But Kagame remains unmoved, declaring: “We have a special past: almost one million victims in a hundred days of genocide. We want to put the country back on its feet. And we have a different way of dealing with that than others.”
Crucially, democracy and economic development are intertwined. It is, therefore, difficult to understand why Rwanda is the fastest developing country in Africa and how Kagame commands so much respect across the globe amid his alleged bad record on democracy and human rights.
Dr Mehari Taddele Maru, a scholar of peace and security, law, governance, human rights and migration issues, explains the puzzle, describing Rwanda as a “developmental state” whose focus is delivery and stability first, democracy later.
“The Rwandan system, therefore, compromises democracy for the sake of development,” Dr Maru says.
According to Kagame: “We give the people jobs and food, which also gives them a sense of dignity. If they have nothing to eat, then democracy is meaningless to them. Democracy holds little appeal for people who are struggling to survive.”
Dr Maru doubles as an adjunct assistant Professor at the Centre for Federal Studies at the Addis Ababa University. He says a developmental state relies heavily on the fast delivery of services that promotes an improved livelihood – but it entails decades-long uninterrupted control of political power.
The system requires, according to Dr Maru, a highly-disciplined leadership such as the RPF with an “extraordinary sense of public purpose, urgency and foresight – focusing on future generations. For this reason, it calls for an exceptionally enlightened political and economic elite that exhibits prudence and supports the trade-off between delivery and democracy.”
Kagame fits this bill well, and many Rwandans approve of his leadership system, even to the point of asking him, through a nationwide signed-petition campaign, to change the constitution and run again as President in 2017 when his final mandatory term ended.
“In a world dominated by corrupt and incompetent governments, Rwandans are lucky to have one that works and delivers on most of its responsibilities, hence the heartfelt praises it often receives from the citizenry, whenever given the opportunity,” says Kenneth Agutamba, writing in the New Times, a daily newspaper based in the Rwandese capital, Kigali.
Valetine Rwugabiza, another Rwandan, agrees. He wrote on his twitter account:
“Often, colleagues ask me why we Rwandans hold HE The President and the RDF [Rwanda Defence Forces] in such high honor? Simply because without them, their sacrifice and service, we wouldn’t be the Rwanda the world knows today, and which we are so proud to represent @UN wouldn’t have existed!”
Others say an authoritarian or a strongman like Kagame with a long-term economic plan is better for development than lots of squabbling, weak and frivolous politicians that stifle progress in the name of democracy.
They say economic delivery has helped bring stability to Rwanda, a country with a dark history of ethnic conflict and brute dictatorship. After all, despite the alleged violations, the Global Gender Gap in 2016 ranked Rwanda number six in the world for gender equality.
America’s Gallup also ranked Rwanda as the “happiest and the best place” to live in Africa. The World Economic Forum ranked Rwanda as the “seventh most efficient government in the world”.
Many in Rwanda are asking why should they change a winning formula and take unnecessary risk. They point to Singapore’s first Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, who ruled for 31 years but was castigated as an autocratic leader.
“Yet on Lee’s death, the US President Barrack Obama eulogised him as ‘a true giant of history, a visionary who led his country from independence to build one of the most prosperous countries in the world today’”, wrote one Rwandan academic in Kigali.
“… Just like President Kagame, Lee was criticised that under him Singapore became known for the government’s authoritarian rule, strict law enforcement, and limits on public protests, to which Lee responded that it was a justified tactic necessary to maintain stability and independence.”
In the same vein, Rwandans say it would be a “crime to sacrifice the economic prosperity of the country on the altar of unfounded and prejudiced skepticism”.
“There is hardly a correlation between success and a specific form of governance,” says the Rwandan writer, Patrick Ngabonziza. “Yes, the US has prospered immensely with a combination of capitalism and their own brand of democracy, but so has China, the number two economy in the world, with a completely opposite political governance system.
“So has tiny Singapore punched way above its weight, but they can hardly be called a democracy, at least in the eyes of the Western powers. So have the monarchs of the Middle East,” Ngabonziza adds for good measure.
There are suggestions in the Zimbabwean media that President Mnangagwa is eager to adopt the Chinese communist model of centralised governance which blends totalitarian practices and home-grown solutions. Rwanda has imitated this system with success. But will it work in Zimbabwe?
- In the next issue we will interrogate if the Rwandan model can work in Zimbabwe