Rwanda, 24 Years On – An African Success Story?


This month marks 24 years since the beginning of one of the worst events in recent history; the attempted genocide of the Tutsi population in Rwanda by the Hutus. A catastrophe which, despite being forewarned and having the capability to prevent it, the major world powers and the United Nations failed to halt. Almost 1 million people (mostly Tutsi, but also including moderate Hutus) were killed in less than 100 days. The violence finally ended when the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), a predominantly Tutsi force, stormed the capital Kigali and removed the Hutu government directing the genocide. In the aftermath, perpetrators and victims alike had to rebuild their lives side by side, in the streets littered with bodies.

In the 24 years since, Rwanda has gone through some drastic changes. It has become an international ‘donor darling’ due to the continued success shown in many developmental analyses. This has been so successful that many commentators have debated as to whether Rwanda is a ‘model of African development’ which can be exported to other post-conflict states. But is this truly a story of success?

There are several factors which contribute to the perception of Rwanda as a success story. First and foremost is the stellar economic performance of the country; the World Bank reports that between 2001 and 2015, real GDP growth averaged around 8% per annum, and the National Institute of Statistics of Rwanda posted GDP increases of 5.9% in 2016 and 6.1% in 2017 – both healthy figures. The country is largely stable (especially considering the scale of the destruction in 1994), is very migrant friendly, and has one of the lowest tolerances of corruption in Africa. Organizations such as the IMF and the World Bank have publicly lauded Rwanda for various reasons, including its target-driven developmental model, the continually improving business environment, and its healthcare and education policies. Rwanda met many of the Millennium Development Goals by 2015 and has created its own ‘Vision 2020’, a set of ambitious targets which the World Bank characterizes as ‘a strategy that seeks to transform the country from a low-income, agriculture-based economy to a knowledge-based, service-oriented economy with middle-income country status by 2020’. Further, Rwanda has successfully reduced poverty rates and its GNI (inequality) coefficient has reduced over the past few years. By most neo-liberal indicators, Rwanda is developing quite well.

This success cannot be investigated without mentioning President Paul Kagame, who is arguably Rwanda’s most influential person in recent history. President Kagame, a Tutsi, was born in Rwanda but spent his childhood in Uganda after his parents fled the Rwandan Revolution of 1959. He joined the rebel army of Yoweri Museveni in the 1980s, and became a senior military officer after Museveni became Ugandan President. He joined the RPF in 1990 and became involved in the RPF’s invasion of Rwanda; following the death of RPF leader Fred Rwigema, Kagame took control of the invasion. While a ceasefire was brokered in 1993, when the assassination of Rwandan President Habyarimana triggered the 1994 genocide Kagame resumed the civil war and eventually led the RPF to victory in Kigali. He was Minister of Defence and Vice President from 1994 to 2000 but considered de facto leader of the country, an arrangement which was formalized in his take-over as President in 2000 when his predecessor resigned. Following this, President Kagame won two presidential elections in 2003 and 2010, with 93% and 95% of the vote respectively. Rwanda’s success is regularly credited to President Kagame, his vision for the country, and his enduring popularity. Considering his role in recent history and prominence in government, this is hardly surprising.

Due to his enduring presence in the national eye, President Kagame wields enormous power and influence in Rwanda. He has had de facto or official control over the country since 1994 and has friends and admirers all across the globe. However, despite the impressive record of success outlined above, President Kagame is not without critics, both within Rwanda and in the international community. Since 1994, Rwanda’s administration has been plagued with accusations of human rights violations, war crimes, and crimes against humanity, both prior to ousting the Hutu government and ending the genocide, and since. While the Rwandan genocide was orchestrated by Hutus targeting the Tutsis, war crimes and crimes against humanity were committed by both parties against many people across the country. However, since 1994 the government under the RPF has kept very strict controls on the public version of events around the genocide, and both suppressed stories which negatively paint the RPF or members of the RPF and targeted journalists (among others) who questioned the official narrative of the government, often imprisoning them. Unlike South Africa, where the Truth and Reconciliation process for both victims and perpetrators were heard and amnesty was often granted in exchange for truthful retellings, Rwanda has often pursued more retributive measures. While the circumstances between the country are very different, in Rwanda this has led to situations where many people have been accused of crimes which they did not commit or where trials are based around the word of one person against another. Importantly, however, there have been reports that President Kagame has shielded RPF soldiers from being included in the justice proceedings (which, however flawed, are an important part of the national psyche).

Further, Human Rights Watch notes many allegations of police brutality, extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detention and torture, which President Kagame has in many instances either denied or failed to prevent. Human rights watch notes that in the Western Province, state security forces summarily killed at least 37 suspected petty offenders between April 2016 and March 2017, “in what appeared to be part of a broader strategy to spread fear, enforce order, and deter any resistance to government orders or policies”. Organisations which are potential challenges to the government are also at risk; for example, ABC News reports that just this month the Rwandan government has forced the closure of hundreds of churches and mosques in the capital of Kigali, which critics have decried as attacks of freedom of expression and association. ABC News also reports that when some pastors protested the closures, they were arrested and accused of ‘illegal meetings with bad intentions’, and that since then many other critics have refused to talk to journalists.

President Kagame has also found himself in a position common to fledgling democracies: he is a powerful, charismatic leader with no real challenger. This has seen him become part of a trend of ‘democratically elected’ leaders who cling onto power once they are nominally obliged to give it up. In Rwanda, prior to 2015 there was a two-term Presidential term limit; had these remained in place, Kagame would have stepped down in 2017. However, President Kagame pushed a referendum in 2015 to allow him to stay in power for longer. The referendum, which passed with a massive 98% of the vote, approved a third seven-year term for President Kagame following the 2017 election (which he won with a ludicrous 99%), as well as the option of two five-year terms following this. While his prevalence in the country since 1994 has made President Kagame massively popular, the referendum shows a trend away from the sharing of power, while the massive share of the vote that the President typically draws also point towards weaknesses in the Rwandan electoral system. Many commentators have already pointed out that many aspects of the Rwandan public and political spheres are stacked in President Kagame’s favour, and that they limit any opposition from gaining a foothold.

Kagame’s absolute control of the state has given him the power to intimidate rivals or force them out of contention; for example, the most likely challenger to Kagame, Victoire Ingabaire, has been imprisoned since her arrest in 2010 on charges of terrorism and threats to state security. Amnesty International reports multiple cases of political assassination and disappearances, especially in the lead up to the 2017 election. The government dominates the public media space and intimidates both domestic and international journalists. Rwanda is thus a de facto one party state, with Kagame firmly in control. While the country may go through democratic motions, the above factors show that the country is far from following true democratic ideals, values and norms.

Finally, despite the impressive macro-level economic record seen in the past 24 years, it has come at a cost for ordinary citizens. For example, in a 2016 study, Ansoms and Cioffo note that the government has enforced strict controls on the population, with strategies such as coercive reallocation or enforced centralization of households:

“Rather than democratic structures that represent local issues and contribute to the formation of national-level policy, local administration appears in Rwanda as an efficient and responsive apparatus for the achievement of centrally set policy objectives.”

The government has also entrenched itself into the economy at the expense of regular citizens. Ansoms and Cioffo use the example of the Kinazi cassava factory in the Ruhango district of the Southern Province. In 2011, the CEO of the Rwanda Development Bank, Jack Kayonga, claimed that “the factory will increase the residents’ income and provide a market for the local cassava farmers”. This was not the case in many senses. The farmers around the factory were forced to grow cassava instead of all other crops so they could supply the factory with the requisite product; however, when the factory opened in 2012 and farmers came to try and sell their crop to the factory, they were paid a very low price for their crop. Other instances similar to this are seen all across the country; the government enforces particular crops to be grown in particular areas, regardless of the productivity compared to traditional crops, and the local people suffer reduced incomes.

Returning to the original premise of this report: can Rwanda be held up as an ‘African success story’ and a model of development which can be exported to other African countries? There can be no doubt that in the 24 years since 1994, the country has become much more prosperous and far more stable, with strong GDP growth, a reducing inequality coefficient and an ambitious vision for the future. However, President Kagame’s absolute control over the country (whether democratic or not) presents some worrying trends and phenomenon, as does the highly centralized development system which leaves little political or economic space for regular citizens. While at a macro level the country may therefore appear to be doing well, only time will tell whether the benefits they bring will flow down to regular citizens and whether the regular abuses of power are halted. The metaphorical jury is thus still out on how much of a model of success Rwanda is, and whether President Kagame is a Machiavellian Prince, another strongman taking control of a state, or a modern democratic leader.