Paul Kagame is an intriguing figure. Funded by international aid, yet dismissive of it; an advocator of democracy, yet serial violator of human rights; and an internationally acclaimed ‘peace-builder’, yet with his political party, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) accused of war crimes. There are few figures more divisive on the continent today.
However, the uniqueness of Paul Kagame mirrors the uniqueness of the country over which he presides. Rwanda’s tiny size is inversely proportional to its international reputation. The word ‘genocide’ has, in the last 15 years, been synonymous with Rwanda, and justifiably so. In 1994, Hutu militias wiped out 800,000 of their Tutsi countrymen in little over 100 days. It left the population economically, politically and psychologically crippled, leaving a deep and permanent scar in the Rwandan psyche. Kagame took to the helm in the choppiest of seas and has spent the last 17 years sailing through previously unmapped political, economic and social waters. Kagame remarks: "A nation that has just experienced genocide? There is no instruction manual for this."
Kagame has set out in his own direction, and while his economic achievements have been recognised and applauded by the West and the international donor community, he has received equally high levels of criticism for what is, essentially, a despotic and dictatorial regime. In response to criticism, he states: "They expect us to be a normal country, like the ones where they are from. They do not understand that we are operating in a very different context." Kagame asks for political licence to rule in the ways most practical and effective for the unique circumstances of Rwanda. But does this justify his human rights abuses?
Human rights criticisms
The Economist has argued that Kagame "allows less political space and press freedom at home than Robert Mugabe does in Zimbabwe". Political dissidence is overtly and brutally silenced through arrests, assassinations and sackings. In the lead-up to the 2010 election the acting editor of the Umuvugizi newspaper was shot after printing stories criticising the Kagame regime. Further, Kagame's main opponent, Victoire Ingabire and her American lawyer, Peter Erlinder, were arrested and locked up. Such actions are not uncommon at election time in Rwanda and place Kagame’s Western fans in somewhat of a dilemma.
However, analysts, notably Phil Clark, argue that the quashing of political dissidents is aimed primarily at disciplining Kagame’s RPF, not the political oppostion. The party suffers from severe divisions between moderates and extremists, making the government coalition, in which it dominates, inherently fractious. The disintegration of the RPF, or the rise of the extremist faction, would see the end of this coalition and this in turn would probably rip open Rwanda’s social wounds, potentially stirring up the simmering ethnic animosity.
Rwanda’s Hutus, who comprise around 85% of the population, see Kagame, not the RPF, as a vote for stability. The whole stability of the country therefore depends on Kagame maintaining his status and so repressive political acts can be an integral part of Rwandan progress. These human rights violations, however, are only justified if Rwanda is progressing for the benefit of the whole population.
Even Kagame’s fiercest critics cannot deny that his handling of the economy is proving a runaway success. In the immediate aftermath of the genocide, Rwanda was on its knees with international aid constituting 100% of the national budget. In 2010 this percentage was down to 50%, and a civil society is emerging with a staunch Rwandan national identity proud of a country which has the highest proportion of female parliamentarians, low crime rates, and a green agenda which is setting an international standard – for example a national ban on plastic bags.
Rwanda’s economic growth has averaged 7-8% annually since 2003 and the government has invested heavily in a national health system and an education system which now teaches 19 in 20 Rwandan children.
Kagame has not only established economic stability, he is working towards a complete economic vision for Rwanda. Despite limited formal education in his youth, Kagame is a keen scholar; he spends 3-4 hours a night reading "books about economics, business management, development issues, politics, international affairs". He plans to turn Rwanda into an African version of Singapore, replicating the success of this and other "Asian Tigers", who rapidly escaped poverty in the 1970s and 80s.
Agricultural output reached levels adequate for national subsistence last year, and in the industrial economy, Kagame hopes to turn Rwanda into the regional centre for information and communication technologies. Incredibly, rural Rwanda now has better internet access than rural Britain, thanks to a network of fibre-optic cables. In 2010 growth rate for industrial production reached 7%. Further following the Asian model, Kagame has turned Kigali into a special economic zone (SEZ) to attract international investment and nurture rapid industrial growth. A recent World Bank report highlighted Rwanda as the best place to do business in East Africa.
Kagame rules Rwanda with a strong centralised government, uncompromising in its management of the economy and willing to violate human rights. These are all characteristics of past African despots – the Amins of this world, who used and abused governmental structures to make themselves and their inner circles infinitely rich and powerful. Though Kagame’s methods are strikingly similar, Kagame does not seem a man motivated by the selfish desires of previous African leaders. Rather he presents a vision for a future Rwanda, inspired by the Asian Tigers and by the collective pride that is fostered by a flourishing nation. He has proven his strengths and the West has tacitly acknowledged his legitimacy with the levels of aid they have gifted to the Rwandan government directly. Human rights violations are a small price to pay for Rwanda’s remarkable progress.
Kagame is a dictator. But as long as he maintains stability and delivers reasonably equitable development, he is the sort of dictator Rwanda needs.