Should Paul Kagame be backed for providing stability and prosperity or condemned for stifling democracy?
At 6pm, as the streets start to throng with motorcycle taxis taking people home, a senior civil servant in Rwanda’s ministry of infrastructure sits back at his desk with a large flask of tea.
The security officers on the entrance may have already left, but on the second floor officials are settling in for several more hours of work. Glance at their targets—more than doubling the amount of electricity generated in the country, providing infrastructure in cities to accommodate an urban population twice its current level, and all by 2018—and you can see why they are still at their desks. This is a country in a hurry.
Twenty-two years since the start of a genocidal civil war that killed about a fifth of the population (and 70% of the minority Tutsis) and saw a third of the survivors fleeing across its borders, Rwanda is still racing to rebuild itself. And the sternest taskmaster is its president, Paul Kagame, who led the rebel forces that ended the genocide and has since shaped the country.
The country he liberated had suffered not just an unimaginable human disaster; it was also left wrecked at the end of the civil war. Soldiers and militias loyal to the genocidal Hutu regime had systematically destroyed power plants and factories as they retreated. Hospitals and universities were devastated, their staff butchered or in exile. “We lost a lot of scientists,” Gerardine Mukeshimana, the minister of agriculture, says matter-of-factly, when explaining why the country has only limited capacity for agricultural research.
It was also still dangerous, as forces from the former government attacked across the border from bases in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), to the west, killing civilians and soldiers. “The hills were alive with the sounds of bazookas,” recalls Praveen Moman, a British businessman who runs a string of eco-lodges in the region, of his visits in the late 1990s, years after the war had officially ended. “Now visitors get off the plane and think they’ve arrived in the Switzerland of Africa.”
By almost all social and economic measures Rwanda has proved to be the developing world’s shining star. Income per capita has doubled since 2000 and, unlike most other countries in the region, it has managed to grow quickly while also reducing inequality.
One reason is that its Tutsi-dominated government (it would contest this designation, since talk of ethnicity is firmly suppressed) has bucked the trend of many of its neighbours. Instead of crafting policies aimed at benefiting the kin of those in power, many of its resources have gone to improving the lives of the rural poor, who are largely Hutu. The UN Human Development Index shows that Rwanda had improved by more than any other country over the past 25 years.
These achievements are the more impressive since Rwanda is small, hilly, overcrowded and landlocked. Yet with few natural resources other than its fertile soil and a few mines, it has cranked out average growth of 7.5% over the past 10 years.
Much of its success is due to effective government. It has clamped down on corruption—Transparency international, a Berlin-based organisation, ranks it as the fourth-least corrupt country in Africa, and well above places such as Greece and Italy. It is also because its government is both disciplined and technocratic.
Officials and ministers are expected to work hard and are held accountable through performance contracts that extend right down to local mayors and other community leaders. Those who fail to meet targets (or who fiddle the numbers) are swiftly fired.
A third reason is that it has embraced economic policies that are friendly to investment, growth and trade with great vigour; it is rated by the World Bank as the easiest place in continental Africa to do business. Many of its policies read as if they could have been written by the IMF, or this newspaper.
Take power, for instance. Instead of trying to boost supply by pouring money into a state-owned utility it has encouraged private investment. That has spurred a wave of projects including extracting gas from Lake Kivu (see article). “Rwanda is an absolute pleasure to do business in compared with a lot of other countries in Africa,” says Paul Hinks, the CEO of Symbion Power, an American firm that is building one of them.
Because of its relatively competent administrators and its commitment to the poor it has become the darling of Western governments and NGOs. More than a third of government revenues (and a tenth of GDP) come from aid. The fecund soils of its green capital, Kigali, sprout aid-agency offices like grass after the rains.
Yet those pouring money into Rwanda are confronted by a dilemma. As much as Rwanda has progressed on the economic front, its record is badly blotted when it comes to human rights. Domestic opponents of Mr Kagame have a nasty habit of getting locked up or being murdered, even once they have fled into exile.
Another stain was Rwanda’s destabilisation of the DRC in the late 1990s after Rwandan troops invaded to stop cross-border raids by forces of the former government. The subsequent violence led to more than 5m deaths and contributed to the disintegration of the DRC.
Fear of Mr Kagame runs so deep that in Kigali’s drinking holes people glance left and right, and drop their voices to a whisper, when venturing an opinion on him. With almost no opposition, and no obvious successor, Mr Kagame recently won an overwhelming mandate for changes to the constitution that will allow him to run for a third term in office in 2017 (and two more after that, potentially leaving him in power until 2034, when he will be only 76).
The dilemma facing the West is whether to keep giving money to an authoritarian government with such scant regard for human rights and little more than the trappings of democracy. A consensus among aid and development workers in Kigali seems to be that it should; for in few other countries does assistance go so effectively to helping the poor. A broader conundrum facing the country’s benefactors is whether they ought to press Mr Kagame not to run in 2017.
Yet aside from limp statements of disapproval (America said it was “disappointed” by his decision) from a few countries, many diplomats privately question whether anyone else could hold the country together. They point to its neighbour, Burundi, which is falling towards a civil war that is already being marked by ethnic killings. Without Mr Kagame’s firm hand, they argue, the miracle wrought in Rwanda could quickly be reversed.