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Is Rwanda a African Success Story or a Tarnished Donor Darling?

More than 18 years after leading the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) into power in Rwanda, President Paul Kagame has become a flashpoint of debate in the country that he has, in many ways, come to singularly personify. Tall, skinny, and professorial in demeanour, Kagame has been called “one of the greatest leaders of our time” by Bill Clinton and a “visionary leader” by Tony Blair, who has also declared himself “a believer in, and supporter of, Paul Kagame.”

Yet, despite such high-profile praise, the Rwandan leader’s critics present a different story. Opponents say that Rwanda, under President Kagame, has become an authoritarian state where political opponents, journalists, and other dissenting voices are subjected to a widespread campaign of harassment, intimidation, imprisonment, repression and even murder. Critics charge this has made Rwanda inhospitable to opposition and an unwelcome environment for dissidents and those willing to challenge the status quo.

Accusations of politically motivated violence have stretched beyond Rwanda’s borders to its diaspora communities in other African countries and Europe. According to The Guardian, Scotland Yard recently warned two exiles “the Rwandan government poses an imminent threat to your life.” Additionally, there have been a number of suspected incidents in African cities ranging from Nairobi and Kampala to Johannesburg, including two high profile attempts to assassinate former Rwandan general, Faustin Kayumba Nyamwasa, in South Africa. Which has been attributed by some to Rwandan intelligence.

Chief among Kagame’s critics have been Western human rights groups like Human Rights Watch (HRW) – which is a frequent critic of the Kagame regime. Carine Tertsakian of Human Rights Watch observes that Kagame has, “been every clever and western governments have been very gullible in buying it and ignoring the violations and abuses.” Reporters Without Borders, meanwhile, refers to Kagame as a “predator” who attacks press freedom.

Amnesty International released a report last week accusing the Rwandan military of holding scores of civilians in military detention without charge or trial amid credible claims of torture. Amongst the litany of charges, this report presents the testimonies of former detainees who claim they were subjected to electric shocks, severe beatings and sensory deprivation while being held in a military camp and a secret network of safe houses in Kigali. The Amnesty report comes at a bad time for the Rwanda government. Over the past several months Rwanda has seen official development assistance either frozen or withheld by Britain, the United States, Germany, the Netherland and Sweden.

The aid freeze came in response to another report, this time published at the end of June by experts of the UN Security Council’s sanctions committee alleging that Rwanda has been supporting the Congolese (DRC) rebel group M23, formed by suspected war criminal Bosco Ntaganda, and made up of Tutsi fighters integrated into the Congolese military under a 2009 peace deal. The report was written by 6 experts and cites more than 80 sources, all providing evidence of Rwanda breaking an arms embargo and violating international sanctions in support of the Congolese rebels.

Rwanda has officially denied all accusations made by groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. As for the UN panel of experts report, Rwandan officials have decried it as “easily disproved,” “utterly unpersuasive,” and “biased and devoid of integrity.” However, Rwandan opposition leaders have echoed the criticisms made by international groups. Boniface Twagirimana, vice-president of the United Democratic Forces party, whose leader is currently imprisoned, has charged, “President Kagame is a dictator. He’s operating like he’s still in the forest as a rebel…He doesn’t want to open the political space to allow freedom of expression.”

In the face of all this criticism, however, stands Rwanda’s safety, orderliness, clean streets, and impressive economic growth. Plastic bags are banned, there are more female members of parliament than anywhere else in the world, the capital Kigali is often cited as one of the safest cities in Africa, and on the last Saturday of every month, neighbours work together in their communities on service projects. Moreover, Rwanda maintains its A-list of supporters, Blair and Clinton amongst them. According to Blair, “You can’t argue with the fact that Rwanda has gone on a remarkable path of development. Every time I visit Kigali and the surrounding areas, you can just see the changes being made in the country.” Blair is an unpaid advisor to Kagame and his charity, the African Governance Initiative, places young interns in government offices in Rwanda.

Kagame also maintains high levels of support amongst his own people. The BBC’s Andrew Harding reporting from the country noted that Kagame has transformed Rwanda, “into one of Africa’s least corrupt, fastest-growing, most competent countries. It is an extraordinary achievement, and most Rwandans are quick to credit their president.”

Writing in the Rwandan daily, New Times, Liban Mugabo argues, “Quite often, I see acres of print space in Western media devoted to Rwanda’s human rights record. My own perspective is that the coverage is often biased and lacks perspective.” “Even if Rwanda were to hold elections again tomorrow,” he says, “and these Western countries were to send Barrack Obama with thousands of observers to watch the elections, guess what, President Kagame and RPF would win with a landslide. The reason is simple: because under his leadership, Rwandans have had the fastest increase in standards of living than any other African country in the continent’s history.”

Amidst all of the controversy and condemnation, Kagame’s most ardent and at time eloquent, supporter is himself. He has employed a take-no-prisoners approach when responding to critics, both in interviews and on Twitter, consistently defending his actions as necessary to protect Rwanda from a return to the civil war and cataclysmic genocide that took place 18 years ago. “Rwandans will not tolerate voices that promote a return to the ethnic divisionism that precipitated the genocide 18 years ago,” Kagame said. “To that extent,” he continued, “we place limits on freedom of expression.”

As for the west, Kagame would prefer if they kept their own preconceived notions about democracy in Rwanda to themselves, especially given the international community’s indifference and inaction during the genocide 18 years ago. The central question in Rwanda concerns the balance between freedom on the one hand and stability and prosperity on the other. In a certain sense, Kagame lives in the balance between these two competing ideals. His reputation and success as president lies somewhere in the tension between those who regard his authoritarian tendencies as a suitable sacrifice to maintain peace between Hutus and Tutsis and those who demand freedom of expression and the right to contest power in free and fair democratic elections.

In Tony Blair’s opinion, Rwanda does garner special leeway, despite the criticisms made by its detractors. “I don’t ignore all those criticisms,” Blair says, “But I do think you’ve got to recognize that Rwanda is an immensely special case because of the genocide.” Certainly compared to other post-conflict states, Rwanda’s stability and economic resurrection since 1994 has been nothing short of remarkable. However, for the skeptics, more than merely his authoritarian tendencies, it’s Kagame’s presence at the seat of power since 1994—first as Vice President and Defence Minister, and then as President – that remains troubling.

Moreover, not everyone agrees with Blair. Opposition leader Frank Habineza argues, “democracy and economic development go hand in hand. We are saying Rwanda is ready for democracy…There cannot be democracy in a country where there is no opposition party and no freedom of expression.” For now, with a consensus nowhere on the horizon, it is likely that there will not be a definitive answer to the complex question of Paul Kagame until 2017 – the year he has pledged to step aside.