Paul Kagame's Rwanda: Can the African nation have peace and prosperity without freedom?

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
Sept. 23 2011 1:05 PM

The Rwanda Experiment

Can the African nation have peace and prosperity without freedom?

Rwandan President Paul Kagame. Click image to expand.
Rwandan President Paul Kagame, former leader of the Tutsi army

NYAMATA, Rwanda—The white altar cloth in the Catholic Church of Nyamata is still stained brown with blood. Shoes, dresses, and trousers worn by families massacred within the sanctuary lie gently decaying atop the pews. The hole in the church's iron door, blow open by a grenade, has never been repaired and will not be: The Catholic Church of Nyamata is now a museum, a memorial to the thousands of people murdered here in April 1994, at the peak of the Rwandan genocide.

When I stepped outside, I could hear a congregation singing: A new church has been built next door.  Around the corner, I could hear children in their classrooms, hard at work on a Saturday. Along the road back to Kigali, the Rwandan capital, someone has carefully planted trees.

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Development economists and aid mavens know very well the story of Rwanda's remarkable recovery. But I don't think the country's achievements are appreciated by the wider public. Seventeen years after more than 800,000 ethnic Tutsis were murdered within a few months by their Hutu neighbors, Rwanda has 7 percent economic growth, near-universal health insurance and fierce anti-corruption laws. Kigali, the capital, is remarkably clean and relatively safe. Some 40 percent of Rwandans own cell phones. National identity cards now identify people as "Rwandan," not Hutu or Tutsi. It is the ambition of Paul Kagame, the Rwandan president—and former leader of the Tutsi exile army which conquered the country in the genocide's wake—to go much further. At one Rwandan government agency, I accidentally picked up some notes left by previous visitors, an advisory team from Singapore. Their presence was no accident: Lee Kwan Yu's benign authoritarianism is widely admired here, and some of his methods are in evident use.  The former Singaporean leader infamously banned chewing gum in his country. Kagame has banned plastic bags—they aren't biodegradeable—and requires all Rwandans to wear shoes.

But there are limits to the Singaporean model. Rwanda is landlocked, and it has difficult neighbors. A truck driver leaving Kigali takes at least four days to reach Mombasa, the nearest port. Worse, he will pay, according to one survey, $864 in bribes at 36 roadblocks along the way. Much though it might like to be an export-led African tiger, Rwanda's geography rules against it.

Rwanda's government has, as a result, set itself an ambitious goal: To become a "services hub" for central Africa, or, in the familiar jargon, a "knowledge- and information-based economy." Toward that end, the government has begun laying fiber optic cable across the country, and has been vigorously courting foreign investors (Carlos Slim was in town just a few days ago.).

And here is where Rwanda's ambitious economic plans run into Rwanda's political reality. Though some political opposition is legal, and though people in the capital do speak openly about the country's deficits, the Rwandan press is weak and journalists are downtrodden. Some have been murdered. Others are in jail. Many have fled the country. All are considered fair game for bullying, and not only by the government. One showed me an email he received from a local non-governmental organization that  wanted him to publish a photograph. Its conclusion: "Please post the picture online and if not, please give a clear explanation as to why not."

Until now—citing Singapore, among others—Kagame and his ministers have argued that control of the press, of politics, and of speech, was essential to the preservation of what still seems, to them, a fragile peace. Their fear of destructive criticism—and of losing power—is not excusable, but it is understandable, given their history: Much of the current political elite are members of the Tutsi minority who fought their way back into the country with Kagame in 1994, where they found piles of corpses. Supporters of the old genocidaire regime still live across the border in Congo, or so they believe, and still write angry denunciations of the regime from their exile in Europe.

And yet no government that  prohibits the free circulation of information can create a "knowledge and information based economy." Even leaving aside the ethics, nobody will invest in a "services hub" where people fear speaking the truth.  At the very highest levels, some of Rwanda's leaders know this, and are pushing broad media reforms; I was in Rwanda with the Legatum Institute to learn about them.

They still have a long way to go, as they themselves will acknowledge. But they may have no choice.  For there is a larger point here: In recent years, it has become fashionable in some circles to speak of a "Beijing consensus," a road to growth and development which eschews democracy, scorns Western models, and favors authoritarianism, benign or otherwise. A few years back, the Rwandans leapt onto this bandwagon, too. It got them a clean capital, fast growth and low crime—quite far, in other words. But how much farther? The development economists and aid often speak of the "bottlenecks" in infrastructure and energy supply that might block future growth in Rwanda.  Maybe it's time to add "lack of free speech" to that list.

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