Image source: Sven Torfinn/Panos Pictures

Rwanda is a small country in central-east Africa, about the size of Macedonia and with about 11 million people. Tucked into the Rwenzori highlands west of Lake Victoria, far away from either ocean, it’s long been a poster child for poverty, underdevelopment, and ethnic conflict. But in recent years it’s undergoing a major image shift in exactly the opposite direction: towards openness, free enterprise, economic development and careful planning for the future. It’s challenging old stereotypes about Africa and forcing foreigners to rethink their conceptions and predictions about even impoverished, conflict-ridden nations. And most of this is the work of its leader, Paul Kagame.

So how did this guy turn an infamous basket-case around in a few decades? First, some background is in order.

Rwanda region

Image source: Findpik

Rwanda is a mountainous country, but like its bigger counterpart Ethiopia, it’s supported agriculture for eons, and the dense population this generated also generated an ethnically united monarchy. Unusually for Africa, this means that it’s a coherent country with roots predating colonialism. Unfortunately, that didn’t stop Belgium from interfering with its society: Rwanda has a strict social hierarchy with an aristocracy (the Tutsis) dominating a huge mass of commoners (the Hutus).* To perpetuate their rule, the Belgians sponsored the Tutsis as the natural rulers of the country and encouraged discrimination and enmity between the Hutus and Tutsis, in effect creating an ethnic conflict that hadn’t existed before.

So Rwanda’s independent history was marked by violence and ethnic cleansing. A revolution in 1959 overthrew the monarchy within a few years, and with it the entrenched Tutsi domination. Power was seized by a new Hutu elite. Ongoing raids and massacres sent Tutsi refugees streaming out of the country, often to neighboring Uganda; this is where Kagame grew up, in a refugee camp, doing classwork on his leg with a sharp stick.

The Tutsis eventually decided that enough was enough, and formed an army within Uganda called the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). Since it also helped a Ugandan rebellion overthrow Uganda’s infamous dictator Idi Amin, the new dictator was O.K. with letting the RPF use Ugandan territory to train and prepare for war. This was launched in 1990, and by this time Kagame was head of the RPF. Despite their safe foreign base, the RPF couldn’t land a decisive victory, but it did harass and infuriate the Rwandan government. By 1994, Juvénal Habyarimana, the melodiously named Rwandan dictator was ready to deal.

Then his plane was shot down, and all hell broke loose. Whether out of genuine fury at Tutsi deceit or (as Kagame insists) they had been planning it all along, the Hutus burst out in genocidal fury against their fellow Tutsis. Within a mere 3 months, 800,000 to a million Rwandans were slaughtered, usually butchered in their homes, churches and streets by machetes. Men, women, children, entire villages were wiped out. It was the greatest bloodbath the world had ever seen. The Holocaust may have been more methodical and wide-scale; the Khmer Rouge may have perpetuated a more horrific, gruesome, and senseless nightmare; but I can’t think of a country that more quickly and devastatingly reduced its own country to ruin than Rwanda did.
The RPF used the havoc to its advantage and forced the Hutus out of the country. Not just the government, either — millions of Hutu civilians, who were complicit in the genocide anyway, fled as well. The Tutsis followed, killing those who crossed their path. The Hutus created a government-in-exile in neighboring Zaïre, where they plotted a comeback. The Tutsis denied them that chance by sponsoring a rebellion within Zaïre that pushed all the way across the country to Kinshasa and toppled that regime — a topic I’ve already explained.

It was a horrible time for Rwanda, and central Africa in general. 20% of Rwanda’s people were dead. Many more had fled the country. Towns, buildings, and institutions were in ruins. Most of Rwanda’s intellectuals had been wiped out. The economy was beyond bare-bones.

It seemed like a bleak, hopeless situation, and in many ways it was. But luckily Rwanda had a new leader, the smart, resourceful, and adaptable Kagame, and he determinedly set Rwanda on a new path.
The first step was to get over the genocide. Its perpetrators were arrested and brought before the International Criminal Court to face justice for their crimes. Lower-level murderers were tried in local courts (gacaca) underneath trees. But mindful of how vicious and unending Rwanda’s cycle of ethnic violence was, Kagame decided not to go too far in settling scores. He decided that the only way to put the genocide and the grief and pain felt by the victims behind was to emphasize reconciliation, not vengeance. After talking things out and undergoing some collective therapy (and dragging out an apology), most of the murderers were forgiven, and went back to living their lives. It might not have met international standards for justice and proper punishment, but since most of the country had joined in the genocide, Kagame had no other realistic choice.

Kagame reinforced this let-bygones-be-bygones policy by basically banning any discussion of ethnic differences, period. Rwandans have gone back to being Rwandans. Political parties along ethnic lines have been banned. Discussing Hutus versus Tutsis is considered rude. The distinction was artificial and colonialist anyway, he argues; why perpetuate it? On the other hand, the RPF (now the ruling party) is basically along ethnic lines, and some commentators grumble that banning discussion of ethnicity is just a cover for continued Tutsi domination. The crimes committed by Tutsis during the war and genocide, and the Hutus who tried to protect Tutsis (who often got butchered for their efforts), have been officially swept under the rug.

But Kagame’s main tactic for getting over the genocide is much more far-reaching and farsighted: economic growth. Like unemployed households who bicker over stupid shit, Kagame realized that Rwanda’s chronic poverty and underdevelopment would keep it locked into a cycle of violence and enmity. He has given his country an ambitious goal: to be a middle-income country by 2020. He has modeled himself after Singapore’s enterprising dictator Li Guanyu, pursuing foreign capital and business knowhow wherever he can find it. He’s courted the CEOs of major American companies like Starbucks, Costco, and Google. The time it takes to set up a business in the country has dropped from 2 months to 1 day. As a result, Rwanda’s shot up to 62 in the World Bank Ease of Doing Business rankings. Swaths of public companies — hotels, banks, the national telecom company — have been privatized.

Kagame’s also cultivated close relations with the Western powers with strongest ties to Africa (Britain, America, France) in the hopes of getting foreign aid and technical expertise. Eager to promote a success story in an otherwise grim region, former U.S. president Bill Clinton and former British prime minister Tony Blair have visited and praised Kagame’s initiatives. He’s also played on their guilt for not doing anything to prevent or stop the genocide (in fact, France armed the Hutus) to win foreign support or at least overlook his human rights violations.

But Kagame’s not fixated on foreign aid to the same extent as other African leaders. He’s steadily cut its share of Rwanda’s budget from all of it to 42%, mindful that prolonged dependence on foreign hand-outs is keeping Africa in a neocolonial funk. He’s lectured other African leaders about following his lead. It helps that he’s personally interested in economics and development, staying up late into the night reading reports from international organizations and random villages. He doesn’t tolerate corruption — unlike other African countries, his family work for themselves instead of enriching themselves from public funds and state-owned companies — and Rwanda has about the same level of corruption as Italy (which is great by African standards).

90% of Rwanda’s people work in farming, so this is where Kagame has focused his attention. Coffee and tea are its main exports, so he has worked closely with foreign suppliers and invites businessmen to visit, inspect Rwanda’s showcase plantations, and follows their advice. It has paid enough with juicy contracts; Rwanda even exports green tea to China. He also closely follows agricultural technology and gets Rwandan villages the best fertilizer he can afford, making them mostly self-sufficient in their staple crops (corn, bananas, beans, potatoes).

But Rwanda probably won’t get very far with farming alone, so Kagame has his eye on future growth. He has invested heavily in education, ensuring that almost every child goes to school and pushing up Rwanda’s literacy rate to 68%. English is taught as a secondary language despite its German-Belgian colonial heritage. He appreciates the potential of the Internet as a tool for education and integration into the global economy, and has equipped the country with some of Africa’s best Internet infrastructure. He’s hopeful that future generations will move Rwanda up the value chain and open more local businesses.

Kagame has extended this open-doors attitude to foreign tourists. It may still struggle with a bad reputation, and a small country only has so many sights to see, but Rwanda’s done the best with what it has. It’s a scenic place with the nickname “Land of a Thousand Hills,” and there are a few lakeside towns developed into getaways for the colonial rulers. There’s also wildlife: chimpanzees, elephants, giraffes, and most of all, mountain gorillas — Rwanda’s one of the few places left to see them. A modern and extensive road network helps travelers get around, and border controls with neighboring countries are minimal.

Kigali in Rwanda

Image source: Getty

One of the bigger attractions for foreign tourists who get tired of the chaos, crime and grime of other African countries is Rwanda’s orderliness. Kagame has enforced his military-style discipline on his country. The streets are clean, crime is rare, and bureaucratic tangles are minimal. In this way Kagame definitely takes cues from Singapore: plastic bags are outlawed, spitting and peeing in public are outlawed, even sharing straws when drinking beer is outlawed. Peasants are expected to wear shoes. Drivers are expected to wear seatbelts. Bums are whisked away to a mysterious rehab center on an island in Lake Kivu. Traffic is orderly and predictable.

Kagame enforces this order by keeping an iron-tight grip on the country. Government officials are held to account and expected to meet Kagame’s tight standards. They must meet their annual performance goals or suffer the consequences. Minions that displease him might get beaten or whipped — sometimes by Kagame himself. Opposition parties are kept on a tight leash thanks to the government’s restrictions on “genocide ideology” (which can mean referring to Hutus or Tutsis in any way) or “genocide denial” (which can mean questioning the official narrative of the slaughter). Police and government informants are widespread, making the country an uncomfortable surveillance state. Kagame’s portrait stares down from buildings everywhere, and a personality cult has grown up around him, with some Rwandans even worshiping him.

Quality-of-life indicators are excellent. Rwanda has a model healthcare system praised by Bill Gates (who closely follows Third World healthcare as part of his Gates Foundation). Malaria and other tropical diseases have been sharply curbed thanks to widespread mosquito netting. Infant mortality is down to 33 out of 1,000; life expectancy has increased from 36 to 56. It even has a national health insurance system.

Rwanda is especially remarkable for the status of women there. Partially because so many men were slaughtered and partially out of genuine concern for their well-being born out of bad memories from the refugee camps, Kagame has pushed hard for lots of women in governing positions and for misogynistic crimes to be treated seriously. As a result, there are powerful businesswomen, half of the Supreme Court is female, and women make up 64% of parliament — a whopping percentage by global standards. Development funds are usually delivered through women under the assumption that they know what’s best for their own communities and families. Women were key players in the reconciliation process and the gang rapes that occurred during the genocide were addressed. Today women are probably safer in Rwanda than anywhere else in Africa.

All of this has had a tangible effect on Rwanda’s economic performance. Its economy has grown on average 8% a year. Its per capita GDP has tripled since the genocide. Hunger and extreme poverty have vanished. While still poor and struggling, its people are well taken care of. Kagame’s determination to improve his people’s lives and learn from foreigners rather than simply importing their things has fostered an optimism and dynamism other African countries envy.

Kagame apparently sees these gains as fragile and tenuous. He is ever mindful that he rules a minority regime in a country that tore itself apart 21 years ago. He doesn’t seem to trust others to continue his development path. Opponents in the media or politics are harassed and arrested; those that flee overseas tend to get shot. Pasteur Bizimungu technically ruled the country from 1994 to 2000, but he was basically a puppet-dictator who quit when his disputes with Kagame became too frustrating for him to handle. General Kayumba Nyamwasa used to be a close ally of Kagame, but has now fallen out with him over his stern dictatorship, and was almost assassinated in South Africa in 2010. A journalist who investigated the situation was killed. As a result, Kagame has been elected for 7-year terms twice and with over 90% of the vote in both situations. A few days ago, Parliament approved a measure that would extend his time in office to 2034 at the latest, although it needs to go to a referendum.

Kagame has also faced persistent criticism over his involvement in the ongoing misery of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (former Zaïre). Even after the chaos of its great war petered out, militias and rebel movements remained active in the east, near Rwanda, and Kagame has patronized some of these to keep the Congo weak and distracted. The main one in recent years was the March 23 Movement, which was run by Rwanda’s defense ministry. Hutu warlords and former genocidaires (genocide perpetrators) remain on the loose in the Congo, and Kagame is determined to keep them as irrelevant as possible. He also wants a cut of the Congo’s valuable gem and mineral resources, which Rwanda lacks. His double standard in demanding atonement and transparency in Rwanda while fostering war and smuggling opened him up to loud foreign criticism, which culminated in America and Britain cutting back their aid money. That prompted Kagame to (allegedly) sever his ties with Congolese rebels in 2013.

Kagame is a controversial president. It’s not clear that he really intends to leave office. He keeps Rwanda under a suffocatingly tight grip. Dismissing ethnic identity and questions of discrimination and fairness might just bottle up tensions for them to explode at a later date, when he’s gone. But it is clear that Rwanda has recovered from its trauma more quickly and convincingly than almost anyone expected. It’s still very poor and hobbled by its small size, lack of available arable land, and landlocked position next to failed or failing states like the Congo and Burundi. Coffee and tea are fickle commodities tied to fluctuating prices and Rwanda’s home-grown businesses are still nascent. But Kagame has also shown Africa and the world what entrepreneurship, micromanagement, and strategic foreign investment can do. He’s a star at international forums like the UN General Assembly and the World Economic Forum. CEOs are impressed by his determination, vision, and intellect. If other African countries followed Kagame’s lead, the continent might make serious strides out of the ditch it is stuck in by poverty, dire governance, and dependence on foreign aid… or it might just lead to more authoritarianism, more repression, and more ethnic conflict.


There’s also a third ethnic group, the Twa, but they’re very small. Never mind them for now.


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