The Model Tyrant – Paul Kagame and the trade-off between democracy and success

Rwanda’s Paul Kagame may be one of Africa’s most complex leaders, from having been called “one of the greatest leaders of our time” by Bill Clinton to being seen as a ruthless dictator by others. It is clear that the man, who lifted Rwanda from the devastation of the 1994 genocide to becoming an African success, cares little for democratic values. Can the Western community accept a country that, whilst it excels in economic progress and standards of living, regresses when it comes to democracy?

Kagame is seen by some as modest and analytical.  The African president not living in a luxurious palace, but in a modest house, sitting up all night analysing Western newspapers and reports, figuring out how to make the best decisions for Rwanda, and succeeding. It is this side of Kagame that so appeals to the Western leaders. The other side paints a grimmer picture of the 58-year old president. Kagame has cracked down on political rights and freedom of speech with brutality. The media has been silenced, and reporters jailed. Opposition parties are banned from running in elections and numerous opposition leaders have been put behind bars for “inciting revolt and genocide ideology”. Using these methods, Kagame won 93% of votes in the most recent referendum that asked the Rwandan population if his rule should be extended, making him eligible to hold the president’s office until 2034.

Rwandan journalists describe Kagame as a soldier, running the country like an army barracks. Former government staff in exile has been found dead; the murders have been linked to Rwandan intelligence officers. When former spy chief Patrick Karegeya was found strangled in his hotel room outside Johannesburg, foreign minister Louise Mushikiwabo tweeted: “This man was a self-declared enemy of my Gov & my country, U expect pity” and defence minister James Kabarebe told newspapers: ”When you choose to live like a dog, you die like a dog”. Even though Rwanda officially claims to have no part in the murder, both British and American authorities have spoken openly about the threat to Rwandan dissidents living in their countries, implicitly admitting that Kagame uses murder to silence political opposition. Still, the aid continues to flow Kagame’s way.

But, the hard truth is that the West needs Rwanda. Rwanda is vital, as it has become proof that foreign aid can work. An American diplomat, quoted in the New York Times said that “You put your money in, and you get results out, we needed a success story, and he was it”. In a time when foreign aid, especially to African countries, is questioned, the billion-dollar aid industry needs to be able to show a working example of a country making progress as a result. Rwanda provides a legitimising example.

Bearing in mind that Kagame came to power in the aftermath of one of the world’s biggest human catastrophes, the genocide in 1994, his results are truly incredible. In a country where one would have thought that trust between people could never be rebuilt, Rwanda today is one of the least corrupt countries in Africa. Crime is rare, making the country one of the safest places on the continent. Rwanda has had an outstanding economical growth, averaging at about 8% per year. The rate of people living in poverty is dropping fast, with one million people lifted out of poverty between 2008 and 2012. Child mortality has fallen by 70%. Almost every citizen holds a health insurance. The list goes on. To top it off Rwanda has the highest percentage of women in parliament worldwide, with 64% of the members of congress being female. Kagame commented this by saying that “the country’s future is being shaped by women”.

The dilemma with Paul Kagame is extremely complex. Being president of a country that the West turned a blind eye to in 1994, he holds moral leverage. He is also widely popular in the country. His economical results are incredible. But his political methods are appalling. What should western donors make of him? Just having changed the constitution possibly making him president for a total of 34 years, wiping out political opponents, silencing media and involvement in murders abroad brings to mind the ruling of infamous African dictators like Idi Amin and Robert Mugabe. But Kagame can show results, and has become a success story of good governance and he has overseen a rise in the population’s standard of living, fuelled by aid from the West. The question lingers though; is it legitimate to turn a blind eye when it comes to democratic values?

Paul Kagame has taken a firm standing and does not intend to back down from his rigid regime. Speaking of the changed constitution he sent a clear message to the Western world: “If it happens elsewhere and people think it’s OK, why do people say it’s not OK when it happens in Rwanda? I just don’t accept this sort of thing. We have many struggles to keep fighting. Some of the things are like racism: ‘These are Africans, we must herd them like cows.’ No! Just refuse it.” Paul Kagame’s methods might be troubling to the Western world, but the results he provides seems to good to forsake. It looks like the model tyrant will march on.

Vilhelm Fritzon

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