Rwanda: Heeding History's Lessons Before It's Too Late

For Rwanda to thrive, economic performance, for which President Kagame deserves credit, must be coupled with political reconciliation and strong democratic institutions.
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When it comes to doing business, Rwanda is the African nation to watch. The 2009 World Bank Doing Business report hailed the central African nation for its extensive fiscal and economic reforms aimed at attracting foreign investments. Rwanda has also been praised for its quick recovery after the 1994 genocide that cost nearly 1 million lives in only 90 days. Fifteen years later, Rwanda boasts one of the cleanest capital cities in the region, booming construction, and a per-capita income that outpaces neighboring countries. These improvements are no doubt attributable to Rwanda's hardworking culture, the influx of foreign assistance, and the leadership of its president, Paul Kagame.

Yet while President Kagame may be partly responsible for the country's progress, his authoritarian rule is also its biggest threat. Under Kagame, freedom of speech is heavily restricted, opposition is strangled, and government institutions are no more than rubber stamps. Although economic and financial stability are key to peace and prosperity, they are not its sole components. Without rule of law, a strong system of checks and balances, and political reconciliation between the country's two major ethnic communities -- Hutu and Tutsi -- the foundation on which Rwanda's economic and financial gains are built can easily crumble.

Sadly, history provides ample evidence of this. In the early 1960s, Rwanda suffered mass ethnic violence that left 20,000 dead. Yet in the wake of this, Rwanda enjoyed a semblance of peace under the leadership of President Grégoire Kayibanda. Rwanda was hailed to be a peaceful nation with an emerging economy until 1973, when more violence engulfed the country, eventually resulting in a coup d'etat. The violence surprised the world -- after all, wasn't Rwanda a peaceful and prosperous African nation? The major reason behind this unexpected crisis was the president's failure to bridge the gap between Hutu and Tutsi and to maintain the then-vibrant multiparty system. Instead, he established an autocratic regime that bred discontentment across the board.

Unfortunately, Kayibanda's successor -- Major General Juvénal Habyarimana -- did not learn from past mistakes. He, too, focused on building a thriving economy and creating a country that, by all outward appearances, was peaceful. He, too, neglected a crucial ingredient of lasting peace and prosperity by refusing to allow Tutsi refugees who had fled Rwanda during the violence from returning. Furthermore, he failed to fully integrate Tutsi who lived inside Rwanda by denying them equal rights to work, education, and political aspiration. This was the Rwanda in which I grew up, as a Tutsi. Habyarimana was viewed as a "benevolent" dictator who suppressed dissent, yet achieved peace and economic growth. By 1987, Rwanda had the lowest debt, the lowest inflation rate, and the highest GNP growth rate of any country in the region.

Habyarimana's regime was hailed as a model of development and stability in Africa. In fact, Rwanda was often referred to as the Switzerland of Africa. Yet because Habyarimana had failed to address key issues pertaining to political reconciliation and democracy, the order and stability he had achieved evaporated in 1990, when Tutsi refugees living outside Rwanda launched a war and internal opposition that had so long been suppressed flared.

The four-year war that followed culminated in the horror of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. Out of this chaos, Major General Paul Kagame, who led the Tutsi rebellion, emerged as the victor and hero who stopped the evil. Emboldened with this historic achievement, Kagame slowly and surely set on a path in the footsteps of his predecessors. Like Kayibanda and Habyarimana, he worked tirelessly to attract foreign assistance, to maintain strong order and security, and to grow the economy. Once again Rwanda is hailed as the Switzerland of Africa. At the same time, however, Kagame, like his predecessors, has ignored the importance of building rule of law and promoting political reconciliation.

It is not an accident that U.S. State Department consistently describes Rwanda as a constitutional republic dominated by a strong presidency -- a euphemism for autocracy. The Economist was more explicit when it stated that Kagame allows less political space and freedom of the press in Rwanda than Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe. This might be understandable in the few years following civil war and genocide, when the country was in chaos and a tenth of its population killed. But fifteen years later, it is unacceptable. It is deplorable that a decade-and-a-half later, "citizens are required to repeat platitudes about reconciliation, [while] hatred festers in many hearts." It is deplorable that people so terribly fear their president -- applauding government policies in public, yet complaining in private.

For Rwanda to thrive, economic performance, for which Kagame deserves credit, must be coupled with political reconciliation and strong democratic institutions. History shows that stability and economic growth are durable not where strongmen reign but where institutions of governance are strong. Kagame needs to heed this lesson, or Rwanda could very well devolve into chaos again.

Joseph Sebarenzi is the former speaker of the Rwandan Parliament and author of God Sleeps in Rwanda: A Journey of Transformation (Atria, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, 2009).

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