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Opinion The case for Kagame’s third term in Rwanda

Rwandan President Paul Kagame at a ceremony to mark the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, in Kigali, Rwanda, in 2014. (Ben Curtis/Associated Press)

Andy Kristian Agaba is a social entrepreneur and the founder of Hiinga, a micro-lending organization in Charlotte, N.C.

On Friday, Rwanda will go to the polls to elect a president. Paul Kagame is widely expected to win a third term in office. By the end of his next seven-year term, he will have governed for more than 20 years. And he will be only 66.

Many Africans, such as myself, see Kagame and Rwanda as a beacon of hope, a model of good leadership that is elusive on the continent. However, others, mostly from Western countries, are concerned about his longevity.

After his next term, Kagame will be eligible to stand for two additional five-year terms, and skeptics don’t expect him to hang up his boots. After all, Yoweri Museveni in Uganda, Joseph Kabila in Congo, Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe and many others don’t want to relinquish power. If indeed Kagame decides to pursue the extra 10 years that the constitution allows, which I personally doubt he will do, he will have ruled as long as Lee Kuan Yew ruled Singapore. In fact, to really understand Rwanda is to study Singapore, which inspires Rwandans, and not their African neighbors. Lee transformed Singapore in one generation, leading the country from Third World to first world. He did not pursue populist policies, but rather pragmatic economic and social reforms with zero tolerance for corruption, akin to what we see in Rwanda today.

The West has often gotten it wrong when it comes to Rwanda. Shortly after the genocide, Kagame, to the consternation of the West, pursued indigenous restorative-justice models of forgiveness and reconciliation, as a starting point from perhaps the worst genocide since the Holocaust. The West had advocated a more punitive criminal justice, which Rwanda rejected. “We did not have judges, courts or prisons to put everyone, and even if we had them, that wouldn’t have solved our problem anyway,” Kagame told a group of Harvard and MIT students I had led to Rwanda in December 2015. “You can’t build a country with everyone in prison.”

Since then, Kagame has established credibility through inclusive social investments and accountable leadership to mend fractures and ultimately heal the land. He instituted universal health insurance and aggressive poverty reduction strategies to raise household incomes. He has inspired Rwandans to believe in creating their own destiny, to aspire for greatness and to walk in dignity. Leaders are tasked each year to create and meet data-driven targets, and Rwanda has one of the highest levels of citizen participation in policymaking.

Kagame’s progressive reforms have catapulted women into the upper echelons of government. At least half of both parliament and the judiciary is composed of women. Almost half of the cabinet is women, with some female members even whispered to be potential successors to Kagame. Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo and Rwanda Development Board chief executive Clare Akamanzi are only couple of examples of female talent nurtured under Kagame’s leadership.

According to the World Bank, growth has averaged 8 percent over the past 15 years due to economic reforms that have made Rwanda among the best business environments in Africa. Corruption is abhorred, and broadband Internet access reaches remote corners, which has created opportunities to make Rwanda a tech hub and has inspired innovation and entrepreneurship. Manufacturing is growing, in spite of hardships that include its lack of a direct ocean port.

According to the World Economic Forum, Rwanda is the safest country in Africa and ninth-safest in the world. I have been traveling to Rwanda since 2007 and would like to relocate my family there once I return to Africa. This reality has encouraged migration of talent to Rwanda, especially from other East African countries. In just over 20 years as the de facto leader, and with extremely limited resources, Kagame has achieved what could take neighbors such as Uganda and Congo generations to achieve.

Despite his stellar performance, critics say Kagame should not “cling to power.” Many argue that he risks undoing all the gains and goodwill he has created as a nation builder.

I disagree. Africa needs its best chief executives. The emphasis on transitions over transformations, and elections over governance, has not yielded results. What Africa needs is selfless leadership to underpin functional governance, equitable economic growth, health care for all, competitive education, infrastructure development and human security. To this end, Africa has had many failed leaders, but Kagame is an outlier.

The evidence suggests that Rwanda’s form of democracy is better-suited to Rwanda in their current context. I believe that eventually, it will mature into a more liberal democracy as defined by Western standards. Nation building has no template, especially considering that this nation went through a genocide only 23 years ago. We must exercise patience with Rwandans.

Singapore is forever better because Lee offered himself for 31 years, despite outside opposition. With Kagame’s leadership, the same could be true for Rwanda.