Paul Kagame is a polarising figure: many, particularly Western leaders, hail him as the epitome of what a leader of a developing country should be. Now the donor-darling of the West, it has the highest net inflow of FDI (% of GDP) of any East African country and averaged a growth of 7.2% in the decade leading up to 2019. Yet defectors depict an authoritarian regime that will do everything in its power to silence those to speak out against it. Despite increases in the material standard of living, the population ranks 147th out of 149 countries in the World Happiness Index. The Land of a Thousand Hills, it seems, has tacitly traded its freedom for political stability and economic prosperity.
The Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) came to power in 1994 as they crossed the Ugandan border in order to halt a horrifying genocide in which over 500,000 of the Tutsi population were killed: Paul Kagame has been in power ever since. Initially, he provided a stabilising that unified the Hutu and Tutsi people; many now believe he has overstayed his welcome. His rhetoric of communal progress and unification has allowed him to harness a post-genocide narrative that brands any anti-government activity as ‘divisionist’ or inciting insurrection. Most defectors paint a similar picture of Kagame: a leader that is both brilliant and ruthless in equal measure. Having toppled the Ugandan dictatorship with Yoweri Museveni, he led an idealistic group of rebels into power. Retribution killings followed, reports of which have been suppressed. When Congo’s kleptocrat dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko, protected the fleeing génocidaires, Kagame invaded. He recruited in his place Laurent Kabila; a Marxist rebel exiled in Tanzania. As they swept through the Congo, an area the size of Western Europe, the rebels carried out further retribution killings on Hutu refugees and génocidaires. After a little over a year in power, Kabila began to fear that his incipient rule was under threat from a Tutsi minority. As a result, relations with Rwanda fell apart and the DRC was engulfed in a war within itself that has cost millions of lives.
The RPF prefer to focus on the order they have brought to Rwanda rather than the chaos they unleashed in the DRC, yet order has come at a human cost. The pristine streets of Kigali have been cleared of beggars, street vendors and children by Rwandan police. According to a report by Human Rights Watch, almost half of the homeless children in Kigali have been detained for displaying ‘deviant behaviour’. Once taken into custody, they are held at police stations, often without charge and sharing cells with adult offenders. They can then be moved to unofficial detention centres known as ‘transit centres’ for up to two months without any further legal justification. Many children have reported violence, including being beaten for speaking too loudly.
“At Gikondo they beat us with clubs on our head and backs of our feet. They said that as long as we live on the streets, they will beat us.” Former 15-year-old Gikondo Transit Centre Detainee, 2019.
A similar technique has been seen in the government’s response to COVID-19 which has involved one of the most draconian uses of restrictions in the world. After curfew, a time that has yet to be later than 10 pm, armed police are stationed on corners of the main roads whilst patrol cars sweep the roads for rulebreakers. If found, they are taken to the national stadium overnight where some report that they are forced to remain awake on the concrete floor as they are subjected to lectures on the importance of COVID compliance.
In 2017, following a 2015 referendum to allowing him to run for a third term, Paul Kagame won an election with 98.79% of the vote, in what Amnesty International described as a “climate of fear and repression”. Only two opposition parties ran against Kagame, following the disqualification of three other candidates on technical grounds. Diane Rwigara, one of these candidates and a vocal critic of Kagame, had nude photos leaked of her 72 hours following the announcement of her intention to run in the election. One month later, Rwigara’s house was raided, under investigation for forgery and inciting insurrection: her family report that she was taken away at gunpoint by unknown men in civilian uniform. Despite the police denying she had been arrested, she was released on 6th December 2018 following more than a year in jail on charges that the three-judge panel described as ‘baseless’.
This comes as no surprise from a government that has made a habit of tracking and controlling anyone that speaks out against them, including phone-tapping, hacking and assassination attempts. The RPF goes to significant efforts to silence their numerous defectors, including assignation attempts on allied soil such as the UK or Netherlands. In her new book, Do Not Disturb, Michela Wrong explores the murder of Rwanda’s ex-head of external evidence, a schoolfriend of Kagame, dealing a critical blow to the regime and the narrative they have sold to the world. As a part of the growing Rwandan diaspora in South Africa, Karegeya was a leader of the Rwandan National Congress (RNC), a prolific opposition party, and survived a variety of attempts on his life before being strangled to death in a high-end Johannesburg hotel having been lured there by Rwandan friend. Whilst the RPF claimed to have no involvement in his murder, their previous attempts have been clumsy: in 2011, the RNC released tapes (still available on YouTube) of top Rwandan generals organising assassination attempts on General Kayumba, a fellow exile of the regime. Following Kareyega’s murder, Kagame offered a sinister threat to those that oppose him, “Whoever is against our country will not escape our wrath. The person will face consequences. Even those who are still alive, they will face them.”
After the 2015 referendum, Kagame can now rule until 2034. Where previously his advocates could attempt to justify his iron fist as a price to pay for economic prosperity, the forecast is now bleak. The boom that Rwanda was experiencing before the pandemic has drawn to a halt. Its tourism market has been decimated, a sector that contributes to 15.1% of its GDP. This pre-pandemic growth was led primarily by public sector investments; a growth model that is now starting to crack as the fiscal deficit rises, fuelled by external borrowing. As a result, the debt-to-GDP ratio rose to 56.7% in 2019 (from 19.4% in 2010). The government must now look for growth in a private sector that is inhibited by the high cost of energy and low skilled workforce.
It is hard to think of many countries that possess more natural beauty than Rwanda. Its nickname, “The Land of a Thousand Hills” is derived from the endless twisting, green valleys that are inhabited by some of the most diverse and fascinating wildlife in the world whilst its small capital has been voted the cleanest in Africa. This is the Rwanda that leaders will see as they converge in Kigali for the postponed Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in 2022 with the theme ‘Delivering a Common Future’. Hopefully, leaders look beyond the RPF’s grand narrative and see the price that the Rwandan population has paid to fulfil Kagame’s vision.