When I stepped outside, I could hear a congregation singing: A new church has been built next door. Around the corner, I could hear children in their classrooms, hard at work on a Saturday. Along the road to Kigali, the Rwandan capital, trees have been planted.
Development economists and aid mavens know very well the story of Rwanda’s remarkable recovery. But the country’s achievements may be less appreciated by the wider public. Seventeen years after more than 800,000 ethnic Tutsis were murdered in just a few months by their Hutu neighbors, Rwanda has 7 percent economic growth, near-universal health insurance and fierce anti-corruption laws. Kigali is remarkably clean and relatively safe. Some 40 percent of Rwandans own cellphones. National identity cards now identify people as “Rwandan,” not Hutu or Tutsi.
It is the ambition of Paul Kagame, the Rwandan president — and former leader of the Tutsi exile army that conquered the country in the genocide’s wake — to go much further. While visiting one Rwandan government agency I accidentally picked up some notes left by previous visitors, an advisory team from Singapore. Their presence was no accident: Lee Kwan Yew’sbenign authoritarianism is widely admired here, and some of his methods are in evident use. The former Singaporean leader infamously banned chewing gum in his country. Kagame has banned plastic bags — they aren’t biodegradeable — and requires all Rwandans to wear shoes.
But there are limits to copying the Singaporean model. Rwanda is landlocked, and it has difficult neighbors. A truck leaving Kigali takes at least four days to reach Mombasa, Kenya, the nearest port. Worse, the driver will pay, according to one survey, $864 in bribes at 36 roadblocks along the way. Much though it might like to be an export-led African tiger, Rwanda’s geography prevents it.
Rwanda’s government has, as a result, set an ambitious goal: to become a “services hub” for central Africa or, in the local jargon, a “knowledge- and information-based economy.” Toward that end, the government has begun laying fiber-optic cable across the country and has been vigorously courting foreign investors (Mexican tycoon Carlos Slim was in town just a few days ago).
And here is where Rwanda’s ambitious economic plans run into Rwanda’s political reality. Though some opposition is legal, and though people in the capital speak openly about the country’s deficits, the Rwandan press is weak and journalists are downtrodden. Some have been murdered. Others are in jail. Many have fled the country. All are considered fair game for bullying, and not only by the government. One journalist showed me an e-mail he received from a local nongovernmental organization that wanted him to publish a photograph. Its conclusion: “Please post the picture online and if not, please give a clear explanation as to why not.”
Until now, Kagame and his ministers have argued — citing the track record in Singapore and elsewhere — that control of the press, of politics and of speech was essential to the preservation of what still seems, to them, a fragile peace. Their fear of destructive criticism — and of losing power — is not excusable, but it is understandable, given their history: The current political elite is largely composed of members of the Tutsi minority who with Kagame fought their way back into the country in 1994, where they found piles of corpses. Supporters of the old regime live across the border in Congo, or so current leaders believe, and still write angry denunciations of the regime from their exile.
And yet no government that prohibits the free circulation of information can create a “knowledge- and information-based economy.” Even leaving aside the ethics, nobody will invest in a “services hub” where people fear speaking the truth. Some of Rwanda’s leaders at the very highest levels know this and are pushing broad media reforms; I was in Rwanda with the Legatum Institute — a London-based nonpartisan group devoted to good governance, for which I am director of political studies — to learn about these changes.
The Rwandans still have a long way to go, as they themselves will acknowledge. But they may have no choice, for there is a larger point here: In recent years, it has become fashionable in some circles to speak of a “Beijing consensus,” a road to growth and development that eschews democracy, scorns Western models and favors authoritarianism, benign or otherwise. A few years back, Rwandans leapt onto this bandwagon too. It got them a clean capital, fast growth and low crime — quite far, in other words. But how much farther? The development economists and aid mavens often speak of the “bottlenecks” in infrastructure and energy supply that might block growth in Rwanda. Maybe it’s time to add “lack of free speech” to that list.