A voracious reader of economic and development literature, the statesman has looked towards the Asian tigers for development models. He has been particularly inspired by Singapore, a politically stifled but commercially thriving bastion of banking and commerce.
As a result of these extremely encouraging economic indicators, Kagame acquired an impressive international reputation as the ideal, progressive 21st century African leader who is willing to learn from more successful states in other parts of the world. He has been able to attract crucial support from the international community and, as a consequence, to secure, large amounts of aid. Britain donated £70 million last year alone. High profile and influential fans of Kagame include UN Secretary General Ban Kee Moon, Bill Clinton, and Tony Blair.
However critics rebut that such achievements are shallow and successes could be easily undone if Kagame does not step up political reform. “What really makes economic recovery sustainable is a political environment that is safe. Without a safe political environment, without strong political institutions, all that has been achieved economically can disappear,” claims Sebarenzi.
Gwynne Dyer also believes that it has Kagame’s economic strategy of ensuring political stability by replicating Singapore’s development model is misguided: “If Rwanda could become the Singapore of Central Africa, then maybe its citizens would eventually come to believe that their stake in the country’s new stability and prosperity was more important than the history. But Singapore did not have so far to travel, and its history was not drowned in blood.”
Others correctly point out that economic recovery has so far failed to alter life in a meaningful way for the vast majority. Most Rwandans have been left groaning under the weight of poverty. The fleeing of Hutu elites after the genocide has ensured that a new Tutsi elite has virtually complete control over the country’s few economic resources, including revenues from the export of tea and coffee and sizeable aid packages from the international community.
The peasant majority are confronted with is becoming increasingly impoverished. As the population, which is 85% Hutu, increases every year, the accelerating rate of soil erosion is ensuring that the amount of cultivable land is narrowing. Need in the countryside is perhaps greater in Rwanda than it has ever been before. The majority of Rwandans still live below the poverty line of about $0.43 a day and 10% of the population are living with HIV AIDs. Life expectancy is only 49 years and nearly one in six children die before they turn five years old.
There is worrying evidence that impoverishment and desperation for ordinary Rwandans is causing the ethnic hostility, which led to the genocide, to resurface at the grassroots. Gwynne Dyer believes that Kagame is sitting on a tinder box of simmering tensions between Hutu and Tutsi. “The very words ‘Tutsi’ and ‘Hutu’ have now been banned in Rwanda, but a ministerial investigation in 2008 found anti-Tutsi graffiti and harassment of Tutsi students in most of the schools that were visited,” she said. “The army is exclusively Tutsi and the government almost entirely so, because Kagame does not really believe that this generation of Hutus can be trusted.”
That the central government is monopolized by Tutsis has not been lost on the Hutu dominated population.
Nor is Kagame’s style of dictatorship only isolating the Hutu majority. Tutsi elites living outside the country have angrily branded Kagame “’irresponsible” for putting inland Tutsis “’at risk”. A number of younger politicians have refused to return to their homeland until Kagame initiates genuine democratic reform.
Perhaps, then, it is not unfair to contend that Rwanda’s leader, although he has clearly set himself apart from other self-serving, ideologically myopic African dictators with his progressive and forward-thinking attitude, cannot magic away Rwandan history. The single greatest lesson of the genocide is that until ordinary people see greater evidence of social and political justice, old-established tensions and divisions will thrive.
Unfortunately, for Kagame, who is intent on an blunting memory of the past by seeking economic solution to deep-rooted political problems, history, lessons and teaching are dirty words. Addressing a football stadium of Rwandans on Liberation Day this year, Kagame exclaimed: “When people expend time and energy inventing… that there is no political space, press freedom, who are they giving lessons to? Who are they? Are these Rwandans complaining? Democracy: we don’t need any lessons in this.”
Yet, history is everywhere in Rwanda, and Kagame cannot overrule the strong predilection Rwandans, who are living with the emotional and physical scars of the events of 1994, have from extrapolating lessons from their past.
By refusing to allow Rwandans space to have reasonable debates about how the country can move forward, Kagame is contributing to the rematerializing of one troublingly familiar political mantra; that the Tutsis cannot be trusted in government.
It was the historical discourse which partly fueled the genocide as Hutu struck down Tutsis, out of revenge for Tutsis’ cruelty towards Hutu as their overlords during the colonial period and fear that the Tutsis would rise to power again. Kagame’s intolerant style of governance is in danger of adding newer, more modern threads to that discourse.
“History teaches everything including the future,” a famous French pro-democratic activist, Alphonse de Lamartine, once warned in the aftermath of the French revolution. With Rwanda having recently been shaken asunder by its own episode of brutal violence, Kagame would do well to give the Lamartines of Rwanda room to break the cycles of History. If not, the indications are that the glimmering, prosperous Rwanda of the future Kagame has launched into the construction of will amount to no more than castles built on quicksand.