Is Kagame’s style of governance in Rwanda justified?

Charlie W

In a time of increasing foreign attention and prosperity in Africa, Rwanda is seen by many as a symbol of such growth, and with the newly proposed British refugee plan being picked up in all parts of the media, the country has been put under the spotlight more than ever. Despite its complex and scarred history involving colonial rule and ethnic tensions, since the genocide in 1994, Rwanda has emerged with a rapidly growing economy, high female representation in government, and a far more organised, united, and modern society by almost every metric. They unequivocally represent a development that many a nation would envy across the globe, let alone in Africa. Since 2000, President Paul Kagame, leader of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) and former Vice President during the civil war, has led this recovery. Whilst, of course, he takes a lot of credit for the growth of Rwanda, critics have argued that this growth has come at the cost of human rights and democratic integrity, both of which form the basis of a larger question of whether political fairness can or should ever be sacrificed in the pursuit of national growth.

First it is important to look at Rwanda with some historical context. It was under Belgian and German colonial rule in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, during which time the Hutu and Tutsi divide was accentuated. Those who farmed crops were ‘Hutus’, while ‘Tutsis’ tended livestock. In 1957, Rwanda gained independence with Gregoire Kayibanda – a Hutu – as President, forcing out many of the Tutsis. Fast forwarding many years amid continued tension between the two groups, in 1990 rebel Tutsi forces, mainly under the umbrella of the RPF, invaded from Uganda. A year later, a new multi-party constitution was introduced, in which Tutsi inclusion was further promoted. 

Nonetheless, in 1994, the plane of Hutu President Habyarimana and the Burundian President at the time was shot down by Tutsi rebels, subsequently inciting the extremist Hutu militia and members of the Rwandan military to attempt to massacre the Tutsi population. In just 100 days, around 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed. As the violence eventually subsided, large amounts of Hutus fled to Zaire (the modern-day Democratic Republic of Congo) fearing uproar and revenge (SAHO, 2019) and in 2000 Paul Kagame, a member of the RPF, was promoted from Vice President to become the President of Rwanda. 

During his time in office, Kagame has seen his country average a GDP growth of 7.76% per year and he has promoted the cause of women in government, saying in 2015 that “any place that does not make gender equality a priority, is probably getting other important things wrong too.” Concurrent with this message, currently 64% of the seats in Rwanda’s lower house are held by women – the highest percentage in the world. Furthermore, the life expectancy of Rwandans has doubled in the past decade, and Kigali, the capital, is one of the safest and cleanest cities in Africa. The number of Rwandans living below the international poverty line is also decreasing – from 2001 to 2017 it fell by over 20%.

However, whilst it is clearly hard to doubt the improvements that Rwanda has undergone, the question mark surrounding Kagame is how he has gone about ruling Rwanda politically. In a document attached to Rwanda’s government website, the country is advertised as a “multi-party democracy” and in its Parliament 24 seats are reserved for women, 2 for youth, and 1 for the disabled community – all chosen by electoral colleges. The other 53 of the 80 Lower House representatives are elected via proportional representation over a nationwide electoral district. On the surface, this seems to fit into a pretty modern and democratic mould. But despite this, Rwanda is placed 130th in The Economist’s 2020 Democracy Index and ranks 156th out of the 180 nations in the 2021 World Press Freedom Index.

This imbalance is a result of a few factors. Rather famously, one source of scepticism around Rwandan politics recently is the legislation that was passed which extends the amount of time President Kagame can spend in office. This was introduced after a referendum registering 98.3% voter approval in 2015. The motion changed both the term length of the President and the number of terms they can serve, and the technicalities of the amendment essentially mean that Kagame could remain President until 2034 – 40 years after his introduction as the de facto President in 1994. 

Another question mark around Kagame and his rule is the lack of acceptance of political opposition. Whilst Rwanda supposedly boasts a “multi-party system”, it was only in September 2018 that any opposition figure was elected to the Rwandan Parliament, when two candidates from the Democratic Green party won seats. Furthermore, in the 2017 election, when Diane Rwigara tried to run as an opposition candidate, she faced a 22-year sentence for “inciting insurrection” and “forgery” by criticising the President and her mother received a similar sentence after being found to have sent WhatsApp messages that were critical of the government. Although after a year in jail, the Rwandan supreme court eventually decided to drop the charges against Rwigara and her mother, the former was subsequently banned from running in the election after being accused of forging signatures. 

Through his suppression of political competition and criticism, and the extension of his time in office, Kagame has become somewhat politically untouchable. And although it seems clear that the balance of Rwanda’s politics is heavily loaded in the favour of Kagame and the RPF, this should be set against the improvements that the President has brought about – raising the question of whether they would have even been possible without such government control. Marie E Berry (Professor of International Studies at the University of Denver) takes the view that “In Rwanda, economic growth has been made possible by the strength of the state and the ruling party’s grip on power.” 

Furthermore, the moniker of the “Singapore of Africa” is one that Rwandans and Kagame in particular have welcomed and which hints at the fact that Kagame’s style of governance is not unheard of elsewhere. Singapore boasts a similar record of economic and social progress: 60 years ago, malnutrition, unemployment and ethnic tension were all common in the country, yet in Q4 of 2020 its unemployment rate was just 3.3% and its annual GDP growth between 1999 and 2007 was 6% – very similar to Rwanda’s. It is also ranked 2nd on the World Bank’s “Ease of Doing Business Rankings” index and is considered “one of the most competitive economies in the world today”. Yet, on the flip side, Singapore ranks even lower than Rwanda on the World Press Freedom Index and, whilst it is not listed on the Economist’s Democracy Index as an autocracy (but rather as a “flawed democracy”), its political regime is open to similar critiques. But although it may not fit into the western mould, this model of governance might still be seen as positive in the eyes of its citizens, who may be willing to sacrifice democracy in the pursuit of other goals. 

Although 21st century Rwanda is a unique and fascinating story – one of undoubtable successes yet also clear political flaws – it provides an example of a wider political and societal movement. Whatever people think of the morals of Kagame’s style of governance, it cannot be said with any modicum of certainty whether or not the ends justify the means. Kagame himself, talking about his time in office, once said that “you can measure and understand where we have been and where we are now.” For nations such as Rwanda and Singapore, this type of strict governance is perhaps more efficient or even necessary in the pursuit of their desired socioeconomic growth. The vast majority of Rwandans have become materially better off under Kagame than ever before, and to whatever extent this is seen to be down to the President himself, the Rwanda of the 21st century is worlds away from the era of the genocide. On the other hand, to cite American writer Leo Zeilig, “the Rwandan Government has used its record on poverty reduction and economic growth to legitimise its authoritarian rule”. Even if the people of Rwanda are indeed content with such a political dynamic, the authority of the state and the lack of adequate democratic systems make it nearly impossible to gauge public opinion accurately, or indeed for Rwandans themselves to be aware of such realities. Thus, regardless of its economic achievements, such a blueprint for governance seems morally condemnable and can therefore not be justified.

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