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A Rwanda for One or a Rwanda for All

By Alex Bailey Rwandan President Paul Kagame is a controversial figure in international politics.  Kagame became president in 1994, leading a country that had just experienced a devastating genocide and a civil war that left Rwanda in shambles.  He was faced with a challenging task; he needed to establish a functioning government to represent a people divided among ethnic and political lines and dealing with memories of loved ones being killed.  He needed to create a Rwanda for all and transform this divided state into a unified, strong one.  In order to rebuild his country, Kagame instituted programs and policies that appear to benefit his people; however, these policies are often ineffective or part of Kagame’s government’s authoritarian agenda.  They are also overshadowed by his human rights violations and the continued weakness of the Rwandan state.  It appears that Kagame has not been the leader that the Rwandan people need.

In a document called the Rwandan Vision 2020, the Rwandan government details the initiatives and goals that it is striving to achieve by the year 2020.  Many are progressing well.  Kagame has created economic growth for Rwanda: according to the International Monetary Fund, in 2011, Rwanda’s growth averaged approximately 8 percent each year for the ten years prior.[1]  Rwanda is also making strides toward achieving some of the Millennium Development Goals, such as those regarding health and education, and its government has been recognized for both “effective technocratic governance” and a demonstrated commitment to paving the way for business in the country.[2]  Donors continue to look upon Rwanda favorably. However, even as the economy improves, often all of the wealth is concentrated in the hands of a small elite group of people.  Rwanda’s Gini coefficient, which is a measure of income inequality within a nation, was .29 in the mid 1980s, which is considered to be a low degree of inequality.  By 2010/11, its Gini coefficient stood at .49.  A Gini coefficient of .40 marks the point in which the wealthiest 20 percent of people within a country consume the same amount as the poorest 80 percent.[3]

Overall, Kagame has not succeeded in creating a government that is democratic or representative.  First, many of Kagame’s policies and programs are attractive to donors and the international community and on paper represent progress and a Rwanda moving forward; however, many are either increasing participation but not truly empowering the people, or are means of increasing the authoritarian government’s control over life in Rwanda.  Second, Kagame has a record of violating human rights.  Filip Reyntjens states that, “The regime seeks full control over people and space: Rwanda is an army with a state, not a state with an army.”[4]  The regime is characterized by little respect for human rights, minimal dedication to alleviating poverty within the country, and obsessive top-down control.[5]  Kagame has silenced both Hutu elites and seemingly disloyal Tutsi civil society members through imprisonment, harassment, disappearance, or death.  Third, elections are not free, fair, and open.  Although Rwanda held elections in 2001 in what was meant to be a democratic process, there were men appointed by the Rwanda Patriotic Front who exercised “full control over the process.”[6]  The ballots were not secretive and there was pressure to pick certain candidates. Both Human Rights Watch and the International Crisis Group deemed the election flawed.  Kagame’s campaign for the presidency in 2003 was characterized by arrests and intimidation, and he was elected by a 95 percent vote.  Democracy has not been achieved in Rwanda, and a lack of impactful policies, a legacy of human rights abuses, and a lack of free and fair elections signal the continued weakness of these aspects of the Rwandan state.

Whether Kagame’s policies and programs have been successful depends on what definition of “success” one chooses.  He has been successful in creating a façade of government achievements; Rwanda is working toward healing its broken past and has elections and economic growth.  The international community is quick to view these at face value and believe that a democratic regime has emerged.  This is a dangerous assumption.  Kagame still has a chance to form Rwanda into a democratic, successful state with programs that truly benefit his people.  But he has not yet done so.  Until he does, the international community must prioritize ensuring that his regime does not become any more authoritarian, that Kagame respects human rights and helps his people, and that he successfully transitions Rwanda to a state of increased democratic governance.

[1] Ansoms, An, and Donatella Rostagno. "Rwanda's Vision 2020 Halfway Through: What the Eye Does Not See." Review of African Political Economy 39, no. 133 (2012): 427-50.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Reyntjens, Filip. "Constructing the Truth, Dealing with Dissent, Domesticating the World: Governance in Post-genocide Rwanda." African Affairs 110, no. 438 (2010): 1-34.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

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