Next month one of the world’s most remarkable leaders, President Paul Kagame of Rwanda, will be overwhelmingly re-elected to a third seven-year term. Kagame runs an authoritarian state and does not tolerate serious opposition. That is not, however, the main reason he can count on such an overwhelming victory. He is being rewarded for turning his devastated country into a most unexpected success story.
Rwandans will re-elect Kagame because they want this progress to continue. They can also be sure that while he holds power, his strong hand will assure ethnic peace. That is no small matter in a country that still lives with the unfathomable trauma of fratricide that killed nearly a million people in 1994.
Ten years ago I wrote a book about this trauma and Kagame’s role in ending it. This is my first visit back since then. It comes as Kagame faces what may be his greatest challenge, one that few strongmen have mastered: transition to a more open society. His success or failure will resonate far beyond the verdant hills of this poor and landlocked country.
Rwanda is following the path blazed by countries like South Korea and Taiwan: development first, then democracy. Under Kagame’s leadership, it will probably continue to grow and become more prosperous. A stable political system, though, would be something entirely new here. Kagame’s place in history will depend not only on what he achieves, but what happens after he is gone.
From outside, the formula for political evolution seems obvious. Over the next seven years, Kagame could ease restrictions on free speech and allow political parties of every persuasion to grow and campaign openly. Then, in 2024, he would remain above the fray and accept whatever voters decide.
This simple formula ignores Rwanda’s painful realities. Kagame’s restrictions on free speech mean that the country’s two traditional ethnic groups, Hutu and Tutsi, cannot preach hatred of each other. If democracy means an end to these restrictions, the result could be another explosion of murderous violence. This presents Kagame with an immensely complex set of choices. How can he arrange a peaceful transition to some new form of government without risking a disaster that would destroy everything he has built?
One certainty is that Kagame will not turn to “advanced democracies” for advice. He scorns the models that Western countries have sought to impose on African countries. Now he must find an alternative for Rwanda that allows debate, but also maintains social peace.
It is a daunting conundrum. Kagame’s success in raising his people from ruin has impressed all of Africa, as reflected in the recent election of Rwanda to head the 55-nation African Union in 2018. Shaping a transition to the next phase in Rwandan history may prove even more difficult.
The ethnic conflict that led to genocide in 1994 has faded from view. Whether it still festers in people’s hearts is less clear. The government’s mantra, which all must adopt, is that every citizen is only Rwandan, not Hutu or Tutsi. Even using those words is taboo. Government leaders insist that repressing discussion of ethnic differences is the best way to reduce tension over time. Western human rights groups disagree.
Traveling through Rwanda is a revelation. Kigali, the capital, is the cleanest and most orderly city in Africa — though Human Rights Watch says this “is largely the result of a deliberate practice by the Rwanda National Police of rounding up ‘undesirable’ people and arbitrarily detaining them.” Good roads cover the country. Most people are poor, but the state assures that none truly suffer. More than 90 percent have health insurance — and when there is an emergency in a remote area, supplies of blood or medicine can be delivered by drone within an hour. Nearly all children attend school, though the quality of education is often low. Electricity and running water reach more people every year. Tourism, which barely existed before Kagame took office, is now the country’s leading money-earner. Caring for the environment is a national imperative, reflected not only in the protection of majestic mountain gorillas but in less obvious ways, like Kagame’s ban on the plastic bags that plague much of Africa.
Direct criticism of Kagame or his development project is strongly discouraged — sometimes violently, according to outside critics. Nonetheless it seems clear that many Rwandans are genuinely grateful to Kagame. The most obvious reason is that he has kept them from killing each other. He has also given them a sense of hope and pride.
“When I traveled to other countries, people used to ask to see the blood on my hands,” one man told me. “Now when you say ‘Rwanda,’ they think of security, hygiene and development,”
Headlines over articles about Kagame often fit an established narrative: “Savior or Dictator?” “Visionary or Tyrant?” This formula misses the point. Kagame’s success in raising Rwanda from devastation is beyond question. Next month’s election may herald the beginning of the end of his era. If he can find a formula for political transition that is as successful as his anti-poverty formula has been, Rwanda will be a permanent model for the world.
Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University. Follow him on Twitter @stephenkinzer.