Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame had promised to step down before this year’s election. “Those who seek a third term seek a fourth and then a fifth term,” Kagame said after winning Rwanda’s vote in 2010 against no real challengers. He had promised to find a successor.
Instead, with Rwanda’s next election fewer than two months away, Kagame’s new female presidential challenger, Diane Rwigara, has found herself the target of misogynist smears. Nude pictures of her are circulating in the country. An opposition politician was killed, nearly beheaded and his eyes gouged out after he criticized government agricultural policies. A Ugandan gay rights activist was arrested and deported after she called Kagame a dictator. And Kagame insists that this will be his last term as president.
Rwanda’s constitution was changed last year to allow Kagame to stay in power until 2034. Like many authoritarian leaders – in Iraq, Libya and Syria, as well as the Rwandan regime leading up to the 1994 genocide – Kagame justifies his rule with statistics about how many schools and hospitals his government has built and the pace of his country’s economic growth. Like many of those dictators, Kagame is praised for maintaining stability in Rwanda.
But each year that Kagame stays in power more Rwandan politicians are killed, jailed or forced into exile. Journalists are murdered and imprisoned. And institutions essential for long-term peace, such as an independent parliament and judiciary, are corrupted. His political party all but controls the economy, seizing businesses at will and monopolizing sectors. Kagame allows no rivals to his power. He has not even engineered a “Putin”, by installing a puppet president at this year’s election. And as he clings to power he raises the likelihood of violence in Rwanda.
Yet, Kagame pontificates on leadership, democracy and good governance at Davos, Yale [here’s Dan Magaziner’s write-up of that talk–Ed] and Harvard. World leaders and global corporations seem enamored by Kagame’s narrative of Rwanda’s rise from the ashes of genocide to become a democratic nation, a global leader in women’s rights, and an attractive destination for foreign investment.
It is Kagame’s near-total control of Rwanda, achieved through violence and repression, which allows him to extend his power to elite venues abroad. Foreign praise is vital to Kagame. He revels in citing such praise in his speeches in Rwanda. And his anger is palpable when he is criticized.
Rwanda’s government produces reams of statistics about the country’s progress for Kagame to cite. But researchers in Rwanda must obtain government approval before publishing any statistics that contradict the official figures. World Bank researchers in Rwanda were forced to destroy their data after it became clear that they were willing to contradict Kagame’s narrative of improving life and reducing poverty in Rwanda. Rwandans interviewed by these researchers were later interrogated by government officials to determine whether they had contradicted the government. A Rwandan journalist who alleged Kagame’s family was involved in corrupt deals was shot dead. A Transparency International researcher investigating Rwandan police corruption was murdered.
So the statistics about Rwanda’s economic growth published by the World Bank, and then by most media outlets, are based largely on a single source: the Rwandan government. Few Rwandan journalists, economists or analysts dare to question the government. This is how the government’s statistics become the truth, in Rwanda and abroad. Such statistics are supported by images of Chinese-made buildings in Kigali, and Transparency International surveys of Rwandans who say that their president and government are not corrupt.
This past year saw warnings of famine across East Africa, including in Rwanda, linked to El Niño. After an initial famine alert in Rwandan media reports, the Rwandan press has mostly been silent. It mirrors a famine outbreak declared a decade ago in Burundi, on its border with Rwanda. On the Rwandan side of the border, in the same climactic zone, to this day there was officially no famine. The official Rwandan line is that food shortage is not an issue in the country.
Meanwhile, Kagame exhorts visitors to Rwanda to ask the Rwandan people what they think of him and his government.
It means Kagame can only be criticized from abroad. And Kagame accuses such critics of racism against Africans. He stresses his “African solutions” for African development. And, as Kagame recently said to the Wall Street Journal’s chief editor Gerard Baker, after commenting on what other African countries could learn from Rwanda, “My satisfaction lies in the fact that we haven’t been involved in doing anything wrong against our people. We are developing our country.”