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Kagame, the Benevolent Authoritarian?

July 29, 2013
Paul Kagame

The great man’s face.

To the unknowledgeable lay person, Paul Kagame’s face more readily lends itself to belonging to a nervous librarian than to being the visage of the president of an African state.  If the Nigerian physical modality of leader is usually a man with thick set eyes, a powerful wide frame and sensual lips, Kagame represents the opposite vision of what an African visionary should be: an empirically-based intellectual, discursive yet pragmatic.  But does the package that Rwandan leadership is wrapped in actually indicate that Rwanda has a Western style, democratically elected and respected president?

Kagame has certainly been a successful leader by many measures.  He inherited (okay, won by force while with the RPF) a nation that was essentially dead, with over a million of its population killed by mid-1994.  Since then, whether officially the vice president of president, he has led Rwanda, enacting austere social and economic measures that have not only prevented Rwanda from becoming a failed state, but also led to it becoming a developed powerhouse in the region.

“Rwanda played a bad hand of cards well.”

Notice the stop signs tell you how long you have to wait!  Such a good idea.

A busy, beautifully paved street in Kigali.

Post-conflict reconstruction has brought many benefits to the average Rwandan citizen.  There is almost universal health care.  Kigali is one of the cleanest cities in Africa, and plastic bags are outlawed in Rwanda for environmental reasons.  The roads are well paved and extensive considering they have almost all been made in the past twenty years.  The death penalty has been abolished, the education system is going strong with both boys and girls attending, and an extensive fiber optic cable network running into the countryside means that even the most ruggedly isolated mountain in the ‘Land of Thousand Hills’ is plugged into the net.  The language of government is, since 2009, English only.  This policy was created because Kagame felt that English is the language of commerce, the international community and therefore, Rwanda’s future. Now, there are families in Kigali in which the parents speak only Kinyarwanda and French, and the children only speak Kinyarwanda and English.

Kagame has created a goal called “Vision 20/20” which is essentially to pull Rwanda up to being a middle income status state in twenty years or less. Ambitious, yes, but given Kagame’s track record of incredible economic successes, perhaps not impossible.  Kagame also introduced a sort of welfare to Rwanda.  Considering the infrastructure of the country was still weak, even in 2006, Kagame cleverly didn’t try any sort of Social Security rigmarole or Medicaid program.  Instead his re-distribution of wealth safety net was quite simple: each and every poor family would have a minimum of one cow for milk and meat and cheese and leather.  This was known as the Gir’inka project.      It had the added benefit of instant local appeal: under Belgian control, Tutsis were delineated as those with cattle wealth and Hutus were considered those without.  By making sure every family has at least one cow, Kagame is subtly reinforcing another one of his policies: the ‘One Rwanda’ notion.

At a garden project in Kibuye.  A site of a huge massacre in 1994.

“We are one Rwandan.”

Under ‘One Rwanda’ any identification along ethnic lines is now illegal- IDs simply state a citizen is “Rwandan.”  Many people are uncomfortable even voicing out-loud what their previous (current?) ethnicity was, and this too is encouraged by the government which wants people to forgive their fellow Rwandan by downplaying differences, even as the country as a whole does not forget (it is illegal to deny or minimize the genocide for any reason).  The official narrative you hear regarding genocide is a national narrative.  The jury is out on whether suppression of ethnic identity will work for reconciliation in the long run. It is, for instance, the opposite model from South Africa, where discussing on previous apartheid ethnic categories is de rigor and considered a healthy way to engage with the latent racism inherent in the culture.  In South Africa, despite an increasing GINI coefficient, this method of openly discussing race has seemed to work.  Only time will tell whether Rwanda’s reconciliatory method will also be viable.

Thanks Kagame.  I slept like a babe all night.  An not itchy babe.

Playing with my mosquito net.

Similarly, to help prevent the spread of malaria and yellow fever, Kagame enacted a policy that sent one mosquito net for every bed in every home- for free.  Since this policy was initiated, incidences of both diseases have dropped precipitously.

Thus, in short, as an American diplomatic representative in Rwanda noted, Rwandans feel that they are better fed and better off now than they were before the genocide.  The stability of their country is just the icing on the cake.

But ay, there is a rub (you knew it had to be coming): the reason Kagame has been so successful is precisely because he is an autocrat.  As said autocrat, he has the power to snap his fingers and royally decree pretty much anything, and that policy will be followed.  And while his right hand might be snapping for wealth redistribution, investment incentivizing, welfare programs, smart social engineering and quick and efficient infrastructure development, his left hand is just as powerfully snapping to quash independent critical media and commit convenient human right abuses.

An US diplomat in Rwanda said that he viewed the US’s top priority to be human rights and democracy promotion in Rwanda.  The embassy puts out a human rights report every year naming and shaming the worst abuses (such as the recent touchy subject of whether the Rwandan government has ties and is supporting M23 in the DRC.  The US says they are and tells them to stop under no uncertain terms, and the Rwandan government is publicly affronted by the slanderous accusations made up by the US and its evil affiliate Human Rights Watch.  Rinse and repeat.)  So far, this sort of international condemnation has had little effect on Rwanda- after all, foreign aid money continues to flow in strongly.  Kagame brooks no dissent- he limits political party participation in elections, and then wins with a suspiciously high 95% of the vote- twice.  He says he will step down when his second term is up in 2017, but should he want to pull a Putin, he could quite easily.

We accept our history and try to come to terms with it.” – A representative from the Rwandan Ministry of Defence


But by far the worst human rights violations are at this point historical: the atrocities committed by the RPF when they were taking control of the country between 1994 and 1996.  Any crimes committed by a Hutu in this time period were tried under the name of genocide.  Any crimes committed by the RPF, a Tutsi army, were unacknowledged and unpunished.  When addressed at all, these violent incidences are considered part and parcel of simple war crimes, a much less serious offense than genocide.   The average Rwandan citizen is upset that these murders have not been investigated, which makes sense, considering 85% of the population is Hutu, and the Hutu’s were the victims of this wave of violence.  Kagame uses the red flag of ‘genocide ideology’ to limit the debate on RPF crimes and deny freedom of the press.  This only serves to emphasize Tutsi victimhood (sainthood?) and the inherent wickedness of the Hutu community.  In the long run, this might even be enough to derail permanent reconciliation in the nation.

So where does all this leave us?  Who is this man, this Kagame, this African leader, this enlightened despot?  Does the good of his economic and social policies justify his draconian crack down on media, his human rights violations?  My two cents: wait and see.  If Kagame steps down in 2017, truly steps down and gracefully exits stage right in a way reminiscent of Mandela, I will probably judge him as a man who did the best he could against massive odds.  A man who worked against the limitations of his country and the limitations of himself, which were partly engendered by years of fighting in the bush and the necessity of having a quick trigger finger.  If Kagame clings to power, if he creates a cult of personality around himself, then in my mind he becomes more of Tito, and should be condemned as such.

Kagame’s face looks at me from almost every wall in Rwanda: in shops, hotels, toilets. He isn’t smiling.  I wonder what he is thinking about from behind those glasses.  Four years is a relatively long time to wait and find out.

I want to say her name was Beatrice.  She was adorable, aged four.

A little girl I met and chatted a bit with in Kibuye.

This post is the third in a series about Rwanda.  To read more about the Rwandan narrative, please see first post in this series.  To read more about genocide, please click here for the second article.  To read an external in-depth article regarding Kagame’s personal history, please click here.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Bert Winer permalink
    July 29, 2013 10:19 AM

    Hi, Luca. This AM i read Paul Kagame’s personal history, written by Richard Grant. It was very interesting and informative about Rwanda with a substantial discussion of the history and problems of that country, I must also say it was beautifully written

    • July 29, 2013 4:24 PM

      I’ll have to check it out! That’s amazing that you keep on reading about such diverse subject matter.

      • permalink
        July 31, 2013 5:43 PM

        I look forward to other communications from you. 

        Your 91 year old, Papa Bert.


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