Rwanda’s Kagame Could Be a Tyrant in Democratic President's Clothing, or a Genius. Perhaps Both.

For a nation known most on the global stage for its horrific Tutsi genocide in 1994, Rwanda has become one of the poster children for economic and national development within a continent that persistently struggles with both. But, as is the case with many of the more positive developments to unfold in Mama Africa, the steps forward have come at a cost, and nothing is as simple as it first appears.

The nation that served as the slaughtering ground for an estimated 500,000 to 1,000,000 Tutsis, a group which has long been seen as a more favorable social class Rwanda, would seem an unlikely setting for renewed development in Africa. Nevertheless, under the leadership of President Paul Kagame, Rwanda’s economy has garnered a growth projection of 7.2% for 2018, as confirmed by the IMF. Though one of the factors contributing to this growth, favorable rainfall patterns, is far from sustainable, increased industrial activity carries more long-term promise for the nation’s economic prospects. In the first quarter of 2018, Rwanda posted 10.6% growth in its GDP, an astounding figure that has led some to cast a more critical eye towards the Rwandan economic expansion.

In conducting such examinations, critics have concluded that the growth may not be truly indicative of either the nation’s economic future nor the quality of life of Rwandans in the present.

Though only Ethiopia experienced stronger GDP growth than Rwanda between 2005 and 2016, critics believe that statistics provided by the Kagame government are misleading, and greatly exaggerated. According to the UK-based scholarly journal Review of African Political Economy, the narrative of persistent, increasingly-rapid Rwandan growth is little more than myth.

According to the outlet, government-sponsored figures do not gel with their own findings, which were taken primarily from household survey data. While the Rwandan government’s National Institute of Statistics of Rwanda (NISR) states that poverty decreased by 6 percentage points between 2010 and 2014, the Review claims that their data showed an increase in poverty of between 5 and 7 percent in that period. The Review also points out, saliently, that agriculture’s outsize role in the Rwandan economy – it accounts for more than one-third of GDP and two-thirds of the workforce – makes the government’s stated growth rate unlikely. Plus, even with favorable rains, wages in the agricultural sector are on the decline.

The report essentially relies upon consumption patterns of 10,000 Rwandan households between 2005 and 2013 to conclude that the Rwandan government’s claims about GDP growth and its impact on citizens’ quality of life are likely inaccurate. Their findings conclude unequivocally that the government has drastically overstated the health of the Rwandan economy, particularly in the past 13 years. There are clear motives for why, if this exaggeration of Rwandan prosperity is in fact the case, the Kagame government would have an interest in painting a disingenuously rosy picture of the state of Rwanda.

Let if first be stated, however, that Rwanda is undeniably better off now than it was in 1994, and is on an uptick that most African nations can only dream of. Firsthand accounts from Rwandans confirm this.

“I think no one could have predicted the strides Rwanda has made in the past two decades,” said Ezekiel Shinga, whose farm is in the southern district of Nyaruguru. “Everything in this country has changed. People own businesses, and the majority here are tea farmers. At least everyone has income. There’s peace, and neighbors now love each other.” (Washington Times)

To argue that peacetime and a steady income for the vast majority of Rwandans should be poo-pooed is borderline sinister. But relative peace has existed in African nations before, only to be rapidly uprooted by extreme poverty, civil war, and violent government crackdowns. Often, the only difference between these drastically differing realities is rainfall. So, if the Kagame government is presenting an unrealistic projection of Rwanda’s economic stability, the nation’s people could become even more restless than they would otherwise if and when the rainfall ceases and wages dry up with the fields.

Kagame likely knows this, which brings us to the potential motive for overstating Rwanda’s health. The strong economic figures, overstated or not, have resulted in overwhelming popularity for Kagame, a former leader of rebel Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) forces credited with helping end the 1994 genocide. Hailed by many as a master military strategist, Kagame took power in 1994 and hasn’t let it go, first as defense minister before becoming president in 2000 after his predecessor yielded the top post. To be fair, Kagame hasn’t had to fight to hold onto his power; he won his third term with over 98% of the vote in 2017. Still, questions surrounding the freedom of press and political dissent in Rwanda have cast doubt upon Kagame’s self-portrait of a social media-promoting, modern leader.

His critics don’t shy away from characterizing Kagame as the latest charismatic African tyrant taking advantage of what they would characterize as fleeting prosperity to further entrench himself in power while stifling any fledgling opposition. Kagame is widely beloved in Rwanda, but his critics tend not to fare well.

‘When Patrick Karegeya—Kagame’s former spy chief and friend who became one of his fiercest critics—was found dead in a South African hotel room in January, the Rwandan foreign minister, asked for the government’s response, tweeted, “This man was a self-declared enemy of my Gov & my country, U expect pity?” The Rwandan defense minister added, “When you choose to live like a dog, you die like a dog.” And Kagame himself remarked in a speech, “Shouldn’t we have done it?”’ (Politico, Rwanda: The Darling Tyrant’)

Kagame, who boasts an impressive roster of international fans and allies, has not avoided criticisms for his heavier-handed tactics, with respect to his critics and would-be political opponents. But the relatively good times in Rwanda haven’t required Kagame to truly flex the military chops that helped him ascend to the presidency. Still, his critics – and those familiar with Africa’s sordid political history – know full-well that Kagame would almost certainly not hesitate to do so.

While President Kagame deserves credit for helping move Rwanda forward from its darkest days, and maintaining a positive international image relative to most African nations, it should not be assumed that the good times will last, as Kagame’s government has implicitly and explicitly stated through words and statistical projections. And, when Rwanda’s national GDP figures give way to a bleaker reality, the true colors of the Kagame government will likely be revealed. Then, the debate over whether Rwanda’s is an economic miracle or mirage, and the debate over whether Kagame is a business-minded, brilliant, uniquely qualified leader or a tyrant with a firm grasp of masterful PR will be far easier to settle.

One must consider that these realities are not mutually exclusive. In post-apartheid Africa, few things are ever black and white.

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