By Richard Minister
Rwanda is one of the world’s smallest countries and one of its strangest success stories. So, of course, it has angry opposition in Europe and can’t much attention from the White House.
Its name is forever linked with a 100-day massacre in 1994 that took the lives of some 800,000 of its people, mostly Tutsis and the moderate Hutus who tried to shield them from genocide. The man who stopped the slaughter was Paul Kagame, at the head of an armed Tutsi force known as the Rwandan Patriotic Front. That man became president and that army became the ruling party. No one expected much. The network cameramen left before the bodies could be buried. Rwanda looked set to become the latest chapter in Africa’s sad continuing story of secret jungle armies, sudden coups and one-party rule that crowns repression with poverty.
Except, that is not what happened.
Kagame announced a policy of “no vengeance” and the reprisals by his men, which he condemned, were far fewer than one would have expected in that part of the world. Government regulations were simplified and modernized. Kagame combatted corruption, making Rwanda one of the top five “cleanest” governments in the 47 states of sub-Saharan Africa, according to Transparency International. Its GDP growth averaged 9 percent per year from 2001 t0 2014.
It is routinely cited as one of the easiest African countries to invest in or operate a business. Refugees have come home and other Africans, both legal and illegal migrants, are flooding in. Rather than fight the tide, Rwanda recently eliminated work visas for people coming from neighboring Kenya and Uganda; its government sees the foreigners as a source of know-how and capital. Comparing itself to another clannish, small, land-locked nation, Rwanda is now hailed as the “Switzerland of Africa.”
This is economic recovery is surprising when you consider that some 90 percent of the country are essentially subsistence farmers, that its biggest exports (coffee and tea) are commodities with rollercoaster prices over the past two decades and that its biggest source of tourism dollars is people who want to pose for pictures with mountain gorillas.
It is far from a paradise on Earth. Uninterrupted 24-hour electricity is available to fewer than one in five Rwandans. Human-rights groups continue to say that independent newspapers self-censor out of the fear of government action and dissidents say that anti-genocide laws (such as one saying that no political party can be based on an ethnic identity and no public speech can advocate violence or discrimination) are used as a cover to hobble opposition parties.
Buried in these complaints is an important truth: there is an independent, non-government-owned press and there are legal opposition parties–something very few African governments can say for themselves.
As in nearby Congo, the current debate is whether the elected president, Kagame, should run for a third presidential term. But the parallels end there. An overwhelming majority of Rwandans voted to amend the constitution to allow Kagame to serve a third term. His rule has been marked by ethnic peace and economic growth. While it is better to have strong institutions than strong men, sometimes it takes latter to produce the former.
Which brings us to Rwanda’s latest opponent: France. While France has no term limits for its leaders and works closely with the German leader who is currently enjoying her third term, Paris definitely believes in term limits in Rwanda. It quietly opposes a third term for Kagame, partly he is not as pliant a leader as it would prefer (Rwanda is a close ally of Israel and the U.S.) and partly because he keeps accusing the French government of having a role in the 1994 genocide.