“Meet Rwanda’s eternal president: Paul Kagame, who could rule until 2034,” the tweet read, accompanied by a four-minute video of The Economist’s assessment of Paul Kagame’s 17-year long rule of Rwanda.
Meet Rwanda’s eternal president: Paul Kagame, who could rule until 2034 pic.twitter.com/L4pmKIGtlb
— The Economist (@TheEconomist) July 31, 2017
Kagame was sworn in as Rwanda’s transitional president in April 2000 after beating his compatriot from the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), Charles Murigande, in an election that included only government ministers and members of parliament, by 81 votes to 3. Three years later, in 2003, after the country’s new constitution was approved by parliament and accepted by the people, Kagame began the first seven-year tenure of his presidency. He’s entering his third next month.
Long before he became president, Kagame served as Vice President and Minister of Defense after the Rwandan Genocide in 1994. He was considered the de facto leader of the country as he was hugely influential. Kagame’s military intelligence was his highest quality and it helped hold the country together after such a traumatic period. It only made sense that when it was time to finally move forward, he was the one to lead the charge. So far, Rwanda has done well under him. For example, Kagame’s economic development plan, with a focus on agriculture, is yielding massive rewards. Rwanda’s export earning grew by roughly 33 percent in 2013, bolstered by its increased coffee and tea production. Thirteen years earlier, the coffee cooperative was earning $0.20 per kg of regular-quality coffee and by 2013, that figure had grown to $4. Through the Ministry of Agriculture and Animal Resources, Kagame runs The Girinka Program — or the One Cow per Poor Family Program, which has been beneficial to rural farmers.
Travel through Rwanda and you will see order and cleanliness, and solid infrastructure. The country has changed a lot. Speaking to Stephen Kinzer, who was at the time a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University, one man said, “When I travelled to other countries, people used to ask to see the blood on my hands. Now when you say ‘Rwanda,’ they think of security, hygiene and development.”
But Rwanda’s development under Paul Kagame has come at a cost, and this was the core message of The Economist’s video. Kagame’s time as Rwanda’s president has been marked by human rights abuse and stained by press repression and the fear of opposition. Anyone who dared criticise Kagame or dissent from him did so, knowing that they could suddenly disappear the next day or be jailed. Media houses dare not say anything against him. You are either for him or you are silent; there is no room for defiance.
On the surface, there is nothing wrong with a video criticising Kagame while highlighting the progress Rwanda has made under his presidency. But when you consider other contexts, you begin to see why it is problematic.
The Economist’s video sparks a throwback to Libya in 2011 — and the civil war that ravished the country, one which it is yet to recover from. The narrative being pushed by the Western media and largely propagated by the international community was that Muammar Gaddafi was a dictator who violated the human rights of his citizens and helped finance global terrorism. All of his good work in the country was suddenly non-existent. Under Gaddafi, education and healthcare, though not without shortcomings, were free for all citizens; Libya had no external debt; the price of petrol was pegged at $0.14 per litre; and gender equality was actually a possibility. With time, however, all that disappeared from the reporting about Libya as the country slowly descended into chaos and militancy skyrocketed.
Most of the reactions to the video on social media have been negative. Because we’ve seen this play out before. It happened with Libya, it could happen again if care is not taken. One Twitter user put it this way: “The next step, we know, is to demonise Rwanda in those two terms – a “dictator” and a “regime”. Africans will not sit and watch you do that.”
Even though there have always been questions about Kagame’s dictatorial tendencies, they are louder as Rwanda’s elections are around the corner. On Friday, the elections will hold but the winner has already been decided. However, The Economist isn’t the only Western publication exploring this flawed narrative during this sensitive period. Both The New York Times and The Washington Post are toeing the same line. All of this is eerily akin to Libya in 2011, and Rwandans and Africans have to be vigilant. What happened in Libya must not happen in Rwanda, a country that has been touted as one of Africa’s shining lights.
We must bear in mind that a line in that video reads, “Democracy is not a universal fix.” Look around the continent, democracy has not worked out well for Africa. Even the US that prides itself so much in the doctrine of democracy now has to deal with Donald Trump. There will always be questions as to whether democracy is the best form of government in Africa. It has its merits when practised properly, but so do other forms of government.
Maybe the people at The Economist need to face their country’s problems. They’re having to deal with Brexit, a phenomenon that has left the UK’s politics in relative disarray. Those who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.
Countries are different and won’t all operate with the same template. Right now, Kagame’s style of leadership is working well for Rwandans. So, let them be.