The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Does Rwanda’s economic prosperity justify president Kagame’s political repression?

Rwandan President Paul Kagame (R) and his daughter Ange Kagame (L) arrive at the North Portico of the White House, in Washington DC, USA, 05 August 2014. On the occasion of the U.S. Africa Leaders Summit, President Obama hosted about 50 African heads of state and government for a dinner at the White House. EPA/MICHAEL REYNOLDS

Last week’s U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit brought some 50 African heads of state and government to Washington to strengthen ties with U.S. business and the American government and, as President Obama stressed, to work on expanding trade, strengthening governance, and deepening security cooperation.

Invitations went to leaders “in good standing with the United States and the African Union,” meaning that nearly all heads of state and government in Africa were on the guest list.

This also meant that leaders of four countries — Zimbabwe, Eritrea, Sudan and the Central African Republic — weren’t invited.  (The leaders of two countries —- Liberia and Sierra Leone — skipped the summit to deal with the Ebola virus outbreak.)

Being in “good standing,” however, doesn’t mean that any particular country’s leader is an exemplary leader. Some critics consider Paul Kagame, the president of the Republic of Rwanda, a less than exemplary leader.  Others point to the economic gains under his leadership as goals that other African leaders should try to emulate.

On the positive side, Kagame, who has led Rwanda for the last 14 years, has brought his homeland out of the depths of the 1994 genocide and made it one of the 10 most improved economies, according to the World Bank’s “Doing Business 2014” report.  That same report ranks Rwanda as the second easiest place, after South Africa, to do business in Sub-Saharan Africa. In July, the Fitch Ratings agency boosted Rwanda’s credit ranking up to B+ on the strength of economic growth prospects and its “track record of prudent and coherent fiscal and monetary policy management.” Transparency International has also given its seal of approval to Rwanda, ranking it as one of the “cleanest” countries in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Kagame’s Vision 2020 plan seeks to transform Rwanda from a low-income, agriculture based economy to a middle-income, service-based economy by the year 2020. Rwanda has taken many steps designed to stimulate this transformation.  For example, in 2008, students started being taught in English, instead of in the French language that had dominated in the country’s pre-genocide past (students are still taught in Kinyarwanda in the first three primary years).  Rwanda joined the African Union and, although the country had no prior colonial connection with Britain, in 2009, it became a member of the Commonwealth of Nations.

The economy grew an average of more than 8 percent a year from 2001 and 2012 so that the nearly 12 million Rwandans now have a per capita gross income of $1,430 a year. This growth helped drive the poverty rate down to 45 percent in 2011 from 59 percent in 2001 and raise life expectancy at birth to 63.5 years in 2012 from 51.9 years in 2003. More than 90 percent of Rwandans have health insurance and, with a 96.5 percent enrollment rate, Rwanda has the highest primary school enrollment rate in Africa, according to UNICEF.

Women have been widely hailed for spurring Rwanda’s transformation from a country that was in ashes 20 years ago to one that leads the African continent in gender equality and economic growth. When the genocide finally ended in July 1994, more than 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus had been killed by their fellow Rwandans.  The unprecedented nature of the 100-day slaughter left the country’s economy in ruins and survivors wondering how they could recover from the murderous ethnic hatreds.

The genocide also left a country where women represented 70 percent of the population, either because men had fled the country or were in prison for war crimes.  In that situation, women had no choice but to lead the country out of the ashes.

That’s what they’ve done.  Women contributed to revising Rwanda’s constitution after the genocide to ensure that it was committed to equal rights between men and women; specifically, it established that women must be granted at least 30 percent of all cabinet and parliamentary positions. In 2008, women won 56 percent of the seats in parliament, making Rwanda the first country in the world where women held a majority of seats. Last fall’s elections solidified that position, with women now holding 64 percent of the seats and one-third of cabinet positions, including Louise Mushikiwabo as Minister of Foreign Affairs and Oda Gasinzigwa as Minister of Gender and Family Promotion.

These changes haven’t occurred without controversy.  That controversy stems from the actions of Kagame, a Rwandan native whose family fled to Uganda when he was a young child. Kagame returned three decades later to help put an end to the genocide as leader of the Rwandan Patriotic Front. The 56-year-old ethnic Tutsi, who won re-election last fall with more than 90 percent of the vote, is in the final three years of his constitutionally-limited two-term presidency, although there’s speculation that he might try for a third term. Kagame, himself, fueled that speculation when he said after a speech at Tufts University in April that “whatever will happen, we’ll have an explanation” regarding his plans following the end of his term in 2017.

The controversy is long-standing. At the time Rwanda joined the Commonwealth, the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative noted that it needed to strengthen its political freedom and refrain from harassing journalists.

In June this year, the United States expressed its deep concern about the arrest and disappearance of dozens of Rwandan civilians in Rwanda over the past two months.  A State Department spokeswoman also said that U.S. government calls on Rwanda to “fully respect freedom of expression, including for members of the press so that they can investigate, report, and facilitate discussion on issues of public concern.”

A month earlier, Human Rights Watch had identified 14 people who have been “forcibly disappeared” or missing in Rubavu, with state agents involved in at least eight of the cases. The New York Times ran a profile of Kagame a year ago titled “The Conscience of a Strongman” that noted Rwandan dissidents who call him a tyrant and accuse him of using questionable means to silence his critics.  Finally, U.S. special envoy for the Great Lakes Region, Russell Feingold, said in a press briefing on the sidelines of the summit that despite Rwanda’s impressive economic achievements, the U.S. believes that “respect for human rights and opening space for opposition voices is essential.”

The people of the Republic of Rwanda don’t seem too concerned about these issues. A survey of 500 Rwandans conducted in early July by ONE, an organization working to end extreme poverty and preventable disease, found that economic issues, such as trade, agriculture, and jobs, were far bigger concerns than corruption. Furthermore, more than 90 percent of respondents felt that the government adequately addressed their community’s concerns.

The American government, also, doesn’t seem too concerned about these issues. At the conclusion of the U.S.-Africa summit, Obama included Rwanda as one of six African countries in a new peacekeeping partnership with the United States. The U.S. will invest $110 million a year for three to five years in this initiative.  Rwanda also obtained a promise that the U.S. will help combat the FDLR rebels in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. (Kagame’s government considers the FDLR a terrorist organization.)

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power recently said that civilians in war-torn areas trust Rwandan peacekeepers to protect them and that the world could learn lessons from how Rwanda approaches peacekeeping.  The U.S. gives about $200 million in direct aid a year to Rwanda.

Thus, for now, the economic and political gains in Rwanda seem to outweigh the concerns about people disappearing and journalists being stifled. Yet, that balance may shift depending on how Kagame responds to international pressure about political oppression and press freedom, especially if he refuses to give up power when his presidential term expires in three years.