In 1994, 13 weeks in Rwanda saw the massacre of between 800,000 and one million people. Ethnic resentment toward the Tutsi population among the Hutu majority, gradually stoked since Rwanda’s colonial period, exploded into massacres across the country. These campaigns were dependent on widespread citizen participation, with Hutu paramilitaries and civilian patrols carrying out most of the killing.
Countries that experience political trauma of this magnitude typically struggle to develop prosperous economies and stable political orders, as deeply scarred memories and enduring mistrust make cooperation in government and civil society nearly impossible. When the killing stopped in Rwanda, forecasts for its future were bleak.
Rwanda, however, has bucked expectations under President Paul Kagame, leader of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), which began its life as a Tutsi rebel group but is now the country’s ruling political party.
A Growing, Strengthening Economy
Kagame’s sound fiscal, monetary and regulatory policies have created a stable economic environment. Rwanda’s economy has grown at 8 percent per year in the new millennium as a result of a strengthened agricultural base, diversification, and foreign direct investment. Performance on health indicators has improved dramatically, with infant mortality decreasing by two-thirds between 1998 and 2012. Its telecommunications sector leads Africa in wireless broadband coverage, while access to electricity has grown by 360 percent since 2008.
Rwanda’s development model centers on entrepreneurship. It has empowered private-sector networks to distribute fertilizer and machines to improve output and transition from subsistence to commercial farming. Modernized education systems have prepared it for a technologically driven global economy, fostering a domestic industry and attracting investment from foreign firms.
In its infrastructure and energy development projects, Rwanda has made an effort to avoid the pitfalls of central planning, emphasizing private-sector leadership and sustainability. Foreign direct investment has frequently backed these efforts and provided vital injections of capital to fund diversifying service and manufacturing sectors. The government’s Vision 2020 initiative to combat poverty has focused on privatization and liberalization to spur widespread prosperity, alongside a welfare state that is simple, unobtrusive, and heavily localized. As a result, poverty declined by 17.6 percent from 2005 to 2014.
While forging this ambitious path, Rwanda has mostly avoided the virulent corruption that often accompanies similar efforts in post-conflict settings. Decentralized governance has prevented the accumulation of undue power and empowered local leaders and organizations to tailor policy for their communities.
Traditional values like imihigo, a performance-based honor code by which leaders are held accountable, have become ingrained in governance. Rwandan bureaucrats and elected officials are required to publicly record budgets and results, which is rare in the developing world. Keeping power local has also staved off feelings of powerlessness that once fuelled tribalism and resentment among disaffected Hutu.
Two Cheers for Rwanda
And yet. Those two words always accompany appraisals of development in Rwanda. Having done much to secure life and property for its people, Rwanda remains short on political liberties. Laws aimed at suppressing genocide ideology tightly restrict speech. While the government is nominally democratic, it practices frequent, sometimes violent harassment of political parties and movements opposing Kagame. Journalists and whistleblowers who expose these abuses or otherwise criticize the regime are usually condemned as a fifth column out to delegitimize the government and fan anew the flames of conflict.
There are few countries for which a reprieve on this score is better deserved than Rwanda, where media and activism were once founts of unspeakable horror. Radio was the dominant source of information and entertainment for Rwandans at the time of the genocide, and stations like Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM) used their influence to communicate vicious Hutu Power propaganda.
Hutu civilians were influenced or pressured into participating in the killing, while Interahamwe militias swelled with volunteers. Every day, RTLM and others exhorted Hutu civilians to slaughter Tutsi neighbors, calling out targets and using coded language. Hutu were instructed to “work” and “clear brush” to eradicate the Tutsi inyenzi (cockroaches). Every day, the call was answered. Their fruit was unimaginable evil: scorched-earth evisceration of homes and families, mass rapes, and thousands of individuals murdered every day, perpetrated by everyday people responding to grassroots activism.
Kagame has invoked this history in limiting freedom of speech and the press, stating, “We’ve lived the consequences. So we understand it better than anyone from anywhere else.” Nearly all Rwandans were affected, directly or indirectly, by the genocide. Many Tutsi were forced into exile, living with their families in neighboring countries until after the genocide.
Curtailing Liberties to Begin Building Stability
Given the closeness of this tragedy’s memory and the cultural and political imperative to keep it from resurfacing, the top priority for most Rwandans since 1994 has been rebuilding the country and preventing conflict. They have, in the main, chosen stability over individual rights, reasoning that an incomplete set of civil liberties is a tolerable burden compared to the specter of genocide. That trade-off has rationalized government interference in campaigning, journalism, and political activism.
So far Kagame’s relative restraint has allowed this bargain to survive, but its dangers are apparent and profound. Kagame would not be the first post-conflict leader to become a dictator, and has already extended term limits to maintain power and boasted of knowing the results of elections before they occur. Critics point to figures like Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, who was revered as a visionary before morphing into a tyrant, as cautionary tales.
Giving Kagame the benefit of the doubt, there remains the question of what happens when he leaves. If a president who is less effective or more corrupt than Kagame, or worse yet, bent on resurrecting conflict, inherits his power, who or what will check him? Gambling on the benevolence of dictators is a historically checkered proposition, and protecting dissent is a time-tested, enduring bulwark against precisely that state of affairs. Its absence thus casts a shadow over Rwanda’s hope.
Self-rule and the freedom to speak according to one’s conscience and vision provide empowerment, security, and vibrancy for which no GDP figures or infrastructure improvements, no matter how impressive, can substitute. In the long-term, the desire for them will always threaten conflict if it is not addressed. The gift of liberty is precious and irreplaceable, even if those of us who are blessed to live with it fail to appreciate it.
For Rwanda, a growing and dynamic society slowly beginning to leave behind its past and explore the possibilities of the nation it could be, rather than the one it fears becoming once again. Yet the hope of solidifying the economic and social miracle of the present will be directly tied to the political reforms of the future.