Progress and Fear Coexist in Rwanda—For Now

Last Friday, incumbent Paul Kagame of Rwanda won 98.79% of the vote in his country’s presidential election. In most countries, leaders who win such a staggeringly huge share of the vote must be either incredibly popular or, more commonly, extremely repressive. At first, it is difficult to tell which of these best describes Kagame’s rule—his proponents point to the progress that Rwanda has witnessed under his guidance while his opponents point to the harassment of the opposition. So how did Kagame do it? Is he loved or is he feared? In short, the answer is both.

Located in the African Great Lakes region, Rwanda is continental Africa’s most densely populated nation. Its roughly 12 million inhabitants live in an area slightly smaller than Massachusetts and Belgium. Despite its small size, Rwanda’s troubled history has played an outsized role in international affairs. At the time of its independence, it had been controlled for years by an elite ethnic group called the Tutsi. Shortly before independence, however, Rwanda’s ethnic majority, the Hutu, took control of the country and prompted thousands of Tutsis to flee. Paul Kagame’s family was one of those that fled to Uganda during this time.

The location of Rwanda in Africa

After years of tensions between the Hutu-dominated government and the Tutsi minority, hostility finally turned to outright war. By 1990, the Tutsi-dominated Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) had been formed, and it launched an invasion of Rwanda from Uganda. After the leader of the RPF was killed, Kagame took control of the group. The war began to stagnate until April 6, 1994, when a plane carrying the Hutu presidents of Rwanda and Burundi was shot down, killing them both. Extremists in the military, the police, and various militias used this as pretext to initiate a systematic massacre of Rwanda’s Tutsi civilians and moderate Hutus. Over the course of 100 days of slaughter, between 500,000 and 1,000,000 civilians were murdered. Led by Kagame, the RPF resumed its offensive and took control of the country, putting an end to the genocide.

Rwanda’s GDP has taken off in recent years.

This is the first reason why Kagame is so well-respected in Rwanda. He is rightly credited with bringing stability and peace back to Rwanda. But he didn’t just bring peace. He brought prosperity. Despite the horror of genocide and the destruction of much of Rwanda’s infrastructure, the country has one of the world’s fastest growing economies, with an average GDP growth rate of 8% per year between 2001 and 2014. Kagame introduced an ambitious development program that has reduced poverty, tackled corruption, minimized wealth and gender inequality, improved health and education outcomes, and restructured the economy to reduce dependence on agriculture. Glittering new high-rises now grace the skyline of the capital, Kigali. Kagame himself has said that his goal is to turn Rwanda into the “Singapore of Africa,” and he has certainly made progress in doing so.

Shiny new skyscrapers grace the Kigali skyline.

Thus Kagame is not a corrupt dictator whose hold on power is reliant only on repression. He genuinely wishes to improve the lives of Rwandans and has already done so, making him very popular. That said, he has been harshly criticized for his government’s dictatorial tendencies and human rights violations. One warning sign appeared in 2015, when his government held a constitutional referendum that removed term limits, indicating his intent to stay in power. Furthermore, according to the Freedom House, “journalists and members of banned opposition groups reportedly faced arbitrary arrests, beatings, politicized prosecutions, and enforced disappearances during the year.” He is also accused of creating an environment of political intimidation and surveillance.

Ultimately, therefore, Kagame’s victory in last week’s election is likely a combination of the two hallmarks of his government—huge improvements in development and repressive authoritarianism. These two characteristics, crucial in determining the outcome of the election, will similarly be crucial in determining Rwanda’s future progress. A wealth of historical and economic evidence indicates that Kagame’s authoritarianism is what his country needs to sustain its high level of development. Numerous Asian governments, including Kagame’s Singaporean inspiration, oversaw breathtaking development by implementing authoritarian regimes. Developmental states require strong government intervention, which means that complete democracy may not be the best political system for the job. As a result, changing the constitution to allow Kagame to run for a third term was likely the best course for the country.

It will not, however, be the best course for the country forever. African history is replete with stories of leaders who, although initially appearing promising, neglected their countries for the sake of maintaining power. Authoritarian regimes are notoriously bad at planning ahead for after the end of their rule. Progress becomes entirely dependent on the skills of the government, meaning progress stops when the next government takes power. Or worse, progress reverses in the ensuing power vacuum. Thus Rwanda’s development must not become dependent on Kagame. He must build the institutions necessary to facilitate long-term development, just like the countries of East Asia did.

Kagame’s victory is, ultimately, a positive reflection on his track-record for development. His re-election is a good thing for Rwanda because the country’s prosperity is dependent on him and, to a certain degree, on his authoritarianism. Someday, however, he won’t be around. When that day comes, it is imperative that Rwanda no longer be dependent on him. In order to build a future in which his country can develop on its own, Kagame must shift his attention from reinforcing his own power to reinforcing Rwanda’s institutions.

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