Paul Kagame won last Friday’s presidential election in a landslide with 99 percent of the vote. The outcome is unsurprising. Before Rwandans cast their ballots, analysts were calling the vote a coronation.
The president campaigned on his record of delivering economic growth and national security. Since the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) took office in 1994, Rwandans now live in harmony and prosperity. Ethnic labels of being Hutu, Tutsi or Twa are a thing of the past, a relic of previous regimes who manipulated ethnicity for their own selfish political goals. Discipline and focus define contemporary Rwanda, where good citizens work tirelessly to promote national development, an impressive accomplishment given the intimacy, scale, and sheer brutality of the 1994 genocide.
In just 100 days, Hutu militias led the murder of at least 500,000 ethnic Tutsi. The genocide was a deliberate policy of a power-hungry Hutu elite who feared, after nearly four years of civil war, that power-sharing with the then Rwandan Patriotic Front rebels would diminish their ability to enrich themselves at the expense of the general population. The murders started in Kigali on the evening of April 6, 1994, spreading throughout much of Rwanda within the week. By the time the RPF stopped the civil war and genocide in July 1994, the country had experienced the most concentrated episode of mass political violence since the Holocaust.
With the moral and financial support of countries including the United States and Britain, Kagame has ruled since the genocide ended, first as vice president, defense minister, and de facto ruler until 2000, and since then as president with some 90 percent of the vote in three successive presidential elections (2003, 2010 and 2017).
The president is the head and heart of the Rwandan body politic, where thinking and dreaming big is rewarded.
Thinking big is, according to Kagame, the sole path to undoing Rwanda’s legacy of violence, while producing impressive economic growth, private investment, poverty reduction, and gender equality. Critics who seek to diminish these accomplishments by alluding to Kagame’s blood-soaked path to power are told to mind their own business. On this point, the President’s response to his detractors is unequivocal, “We suffered genocide, you did not.” Outsiders who question Kagame are quickly labeled as racists, unwilling to recognize an African success story when they see one. Those who question or challenge RPF policy directives soon find themselves in trouble, either as agitators or people who are not committed to ethnic unity.
The RPF’s oft-repeated narrative of success is one of development, financed by economic growth averaging eight percent per annum since 1994, funded in large part by foreign donors. The benefits are unfairly distributed, accruing to a relatively wealthy, educated and English-speaking urban elite who came to live in Rwanda only since 1994. The majority of Rwandans, both today and before 1994, live in rural areas, eking out a living as subsistence farmers. Most are poor, living on less than two dollars per day, surviving on what they can produce. Poverty makes them risk adverse, putting how they live at odds with RPF policies to quickly upgrade their lives in the name of ethnic unity and development. The capital, Kigali, gives the appearance of prosperity, while the average rural household of nine people struggles with food insecurity and malnutrition rooted in land disputes.
The rural majority has always been subject to the self-serving decisions of political elites, whether Tutsi or Hutu. Throughout Rwandan history, winner-take-all politics has been culturally rooted in a system of dominance of the ruling group over the rest of society. The RPF leadership is no different from its postcolonial predecessors in this regard. The party has long used the institutional and administrative capacities of the state to organize Rwandan social and political life. The RPF’s Rwanda lacks strong public institutions to check or balance the power of President Kagame and his cronies. There is no reliable mechanism to allow for the peaceful transition of power to another leader, let alone a different political model. All powerful elements of the Rwandan state are under the president’s command — the police, the armed forces, the judiciary and government officials go along with his designs. If Rwandans feel uninspired by Kagame’s visionary leadership, they stand aside in the name of self-preservation rather than obedience.
Others, namely rural Rwandans, struggling to make ends meet under the economic and national unity policies of the RPF, know that powerful people make choices rooted in self-preservation without due regard for the rural majority. They also know that political and military elites use the machinery of the state to their own ends. They shellac their endorsement of their president with a paste of resignation and fear.
Kagame is not one to shy away from hard work, kowtow to critics at home or abroad, or worry about the harsh realities of rural Rwandans. His third mandate is premised on average annual growth rate of 10 percent. His RPF will continue to grow the economy, promising to make Rwanda an upper middle-income country by 2035 (which happens to be one year after his right to run for president runs out) and a high income one by 2050.
Reaching this near-unattainable goal will fall on the backs of rural farmers, as local officials do all they can to get as much as they can out of an already exhausted population. Doing more with less is a public virtue in contemporary Rwanda, even as the government stands accused of manipulating poverty-reduction data to rationalize its hard line on economic growth. For the time being, the government seems more interested in producing impressive statistics over investing in a diversified pro-poor economy.
Grandiose planning may prove the downfall of Rwanda’s charismatic president. The idea that tiny, land-locked, resource-poor Rwanda can harness a largely agrarian economy to propel the country to high-income status in three decades seems unlikely, given the vicissitudes of history and the country’s socio-political legacy. Rwanda’s past points to waves of mass violence, occurring every 40 years or so, when the ruling class fractures and ordinary people become the targets of physical, ethnically motivated violence. The ambitious, talented, and heavy-handed RPF shows few signs of bucking this trend.