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Paul Kagame: What Makes for a Tolerable Dictator?

Twenty-three years after the Hutu majority government committed mass genocide against close to 1 million Tutsis in 100 days, incumbent Paul Kagame won 99% of the votes in Rwanda’s presidential elections last Friday in an outcome that surprised no one. Two years previously, the government had proposed an amendment on term limits and had it rubber-stamped in a referendum that was widely criticized by human rights organizations, paving the road for Kagame to stay in office until 2034 if he so desires.

Unsurprisingly, the prospect of such a long mandate has democracy watchers wringing their hands. Meanwhile, other observers point to successful post-genocide reconstruction, astronomical economic growth rates, and high levels of gender parity in government and business as reasons why it might be worth it to give up some democracy in return for benefits that most other African nations have yet to see. The highly divided reactions to Kagame’s victory thus raises the question: what kind of trade-offs should we be willing to tolerate when it comes to stability vs. democracy in Africa?

On one hand, while Kagame commands deep support stemming from the role he played in ending the genocide, he and his government have been increasingly invoking the possibility of another genocide as a way to justify their grip on power. For instance, Kagame’s strongest opponent, Diane Rwigara, was disqualified from the elections partly on grounds that her campaign was too divisive. Shortly after she had the audacity to declare her candidacy, nude photos of her were circulated on the Internet in what was widely denounced as a smear campaign. The opposition leader Victoire Ingabire was also put under house arrest prior to the 2010 elections and is now serving a 15-year sentence under vague charges of threatening state security. One of the two opponents who was permitted to run in the elections, Frank Habineza, said he had expected to receive 65% of the votes, but ended up winning less than half of 1%. His fate was preferable to that of his party’s vice president, however, who was found beheaded several weeks before the 2010 elections. Other members of the opposition, as well as journalists and civil society groups, also cite intimidation, violence, and harassment as a fact of life under Kagame’s rule.

On the other hand, the Kagame regime has won the support of much of the population, as well as the West, thanks to steep declines in poverty, 8% annual growth in GDP from 2001-2014, and the introduction of popular services such as free basic education and high-speed Internet for 95% of the population. The country also boasts one of the highest rates of female representation in parliament at 60%, which is far higher than most developed nations. Given such a record, Western powers, which currently provide foreign aid that accounts for roughly 30-40% of Rwanda’s GDP, were eager to endorse a leader who promised to continue that trajectory. During a recent press conference in Kigali, Michael Ryan, European Union ambassador and head of the EU delegation to Rwanda, declared: “We have a leader who has evidence of his work in front of everybody. And you have candidates who have to prove [themselves].”

(Don Mugisha)

To be sure, there’s no such quid pro quo of economic growth in exchange for limited freedom in some of Rwanda’s neighboring countries, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, whose leader is also setting his sights on obtaining a third term. Last December, President Joseph Kabila refused to leave office after the end of his final term and has been pointedly ignoring an agreement to hold elections by the end of 2017. Most recently, the announcement by the country’s national electoral commissioner that the presidential vote was unlikely to take place this year provoked the strongest backlash yet from the opposition. The pro-democracy youth group La Lucha organized anti-government demonstrations across the country that received the backing of leading opposition politicians, including presidential candidate Moïse Katumbi, before being stifled by government security forces.

Undeterred by the crackdown, opposition groups gathered this weekend to endorse the candidacy of Katumbi, who has been in forced exiled for more than year, and to devise new strategies to instigate a peaceful handover of power in the DRC. As the economy continues to deteriorate under Kabila’s watch – inflation is expected to top 30% this year, even as wages remain flat – such a handover would be welcome indeed.

Compared with the context in the wider region, then, Rwanda’s political landscape looks positively sunny. However, simply because the bar is set so low does not mean that the international community should quietly consent to dictators in disguise like Kagame. In fact, evidence shows that even his government’s record is much less impressive than it looks, including on some of its supposedly flagship achievements. For instance, major studies of Rwanda’s economy can only be done by government authorities or under their scrutiny, which has led independent researchers to challenge the government’s analyses of key data. The Review of African Political Economy has published several articles disputing the government’s official poverty figures and GDP growth rates, and Filip Reyntjens of the University of Antwerp has argued that poverty actually increased by 6 percentage points from 2010-2014, not decreased by that same rate, as the government claims.

For a country with so few natural resources, the fact that its economy might be much weaker than previously thought is unsurprising. It seems that in the trade-off between freedom and growth, then, the Rwandan people are getting neither. It’s about time the international community stopped hailing Kagame as such a savior and opened their eyes to his underhanded efforts to consolidate his hold on power.