Strong Man, Stronger Country: When a dictatorship works


Rwanda has earned itself a special nickname: “the Switzerland of Africa.” Just like in Switzerland, everything seems to run abnormally well in this small, landlocked country in central-east Africa. Since the 1994 genocide, Rwanda has developed so rapidly as to invite comparison with the success stories of the “Asian tiger” economies in the 1990s. Rwanda’s good fortune is all the more impressive given that the country has few natural resources and, until recently, a fairly stagnant tourism sector_. However, despite its economic success, Rwanda has been ruled for the past 16 years by one man whose democratic mandate is tenuous at best. President Paul Kagame has established Rwanda as an outlier – a country with a booming economy, decreasing inequality, and a set of extremely ambitious policies for the future, all the while led by an illiberal strongman. Kagame’s rule presents questions about the relationship, or lack thereof, between democracy and prosperity, begs the question of whether more democracy is always better.


Kagame’s rule is largely a legacy of the social tensions that arose during the colonial period. When Belgium ruled Rwanda, it propped up the Tutsis as a ruling elite over the Hutu, the agrarian middle class. Over time, the Hutu came to view the Tutsis as collaborators with a foreign power. When the country gained independence, the Tutsi monarchy was replaced by a string of Hutu presidents. In 1994, longstanding tensions between the two groups erupted, resulting in the mass killing of Tutsi by Hutu extremists. The genocide ended after a group of Tutsi exiles, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), gained control of Rwanda and established a government headed by Pasteur Bizimungu. The leader of the RPF was a young Tutsi military commander named Paul Kagame, who subsequently became president in 2000 after forcing Bizimungu out of government.


In 2003, Rwanda held its first elections in 25 years. Until then, the Kagame-dominated administration had been unelected. The results were staggering: Kagame won with 95 percent of the vote. Former Prime Minister Faustin Twagiramungu finished second with just over 3.5 percent and later fled to Belgium, claiming that Kagame was leading the country toward single-party statehood. Indeed, before the election Kagame had outlawed Twagiramungu’s party.


Kagame went on to win re-election in 2010 with 93 percent of the vote. The second place candidate later resigned from his post as senate president following charges of embezzlement. As Kagame’s second term neared an end, he proposed a referendum, which would allow him to run for a third and fourth and fifth term. In 2015, 98.3 percent of the country voted in favor of extending his term limit. Needless to say, elections in Rwanda are fixed. Kagame’s tight control over the electoral process makes it virtually impossible for him to lose an election. Yet the country’s lack of democracy does not mean that Kagame is just another ineffective dictator clinging to power. Rather, Rwandan citizens tend to be fairly satisfied with Kagame’s policies.


When Kagame first came to power in 1994, many expected retribution against the Hutu. After all, Kagame was the leader of the Tutsi group that took control of the country and put a stop to the genocide. However, fears of revenge were soon dispelled: Kagame focused much of his economic policy on bettering the lives of Hutu lower classes. Over the past 21 years, Rwanda’s average GDP growth rate has been 9.6 percent per year and income per capita has doubled since 2000. Remarkably, inequality fell during this time too. This led Rwanda to boast the largest improvement in the United Nations’ Human Development Index in the world.


This impressive economic achievement is a direct result of polices that were crafted to benefit the nation as a whole, not just the elite or one specific social class. In fact, the main quality that sets Kagame’s administration apart from those of neighboring countries is his ruthless war against corruption. This summer, Kagame fired his health minister, who had been accused of protecting friends during an audit over misuse of malaria prevention funds. Because of Kagame’s uncompromising stance, Rwanda is ranked 44 out of 168 countries on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. Compared to some of its neighbors – like Kenya, which is ranked 139, or Burundi, which clocks in at 150 – Rwanda is doing remarkably well.


Corruption is problematic not simply because it is unethical, but also because it discourages foreign economic investment, a centerpiece of Kagame’s overall economic policy. Aware of his country’s economic and capital limitations, the president has sought to open the country up to foreign firms, which are more attracted to places with minimal graft. For example, when the most remote areas of Rwanda began to receive electricity, Kagame refused to pour government funds into a state-owned utility firm, instead encouraging outside private investment. This led to several innovative projects, among them gas-extraction from the shared Rwandan-Conogolese Lake Kivu.


Economic development has also been propelled by improvements in healthcare. Since 1990, Rwanda has lowered its maternal mortality rate from pregnancy from 1,400 deaths per 100,000 births to only 290. Furthermore, diarrhea and pneumonia now rarely result in death. Mortality from tuberculosis has declined by 75 percent in the last 10 years. The government achieved these results by getting 91 percent of the population to subscribe to an insurance program supported by foreign aid. Similar programs in other countries are often squandered by poor management and corruption. This, in turn, has helped to fight curable diseases and made the country’s labor force healthier and more productive.


Rwanda is also a leader of female empowerment. Despite public skepticism, Kagame enacted so-called “pink quotas” – a minimum requirement on the number of female MPs – and ensured gender equality became a cultural norm. Currently, nine out of nineteen cabinet ministers are women, and Rwanda is now the only country in the world to have a majority-female parliament, 64 percent.


President Kagame’s goals for the future are no less ambitious than his achievements thus far. His economic plan, Vision 2020, aims to make Rwanda one of few middle-income countries in Africa. Although that dream is far away, successful policies have kept hopes afloat so far. In fact, on some fronts, Kagame’s Rwanda is surpassing much of the world. For example, when landing at Kigali airport, tourists are welcomed by signs notifying them that all plastic bags are forbidden, as a 2008 environmental law banned all nonbiodegradable bags. Countries more developed than Rwanda have tried to limit the use of plastic bags over the last few decades, yet did so by imposing ineffective quotas.


Passing such sweeping reform in democratic countries would take years of activism to overcome lobbying and political inertia. Kagame’s policy was put into effect with remarkable speed and strikingly successful results. The country welcomed the new laws and is now considerably cleaner because it uses recyclable paper bags. By contrast, in Mombasa, Kenya’s second largest city, there are vast areas of land occupied by tall mountains of garbage.

While Rwanda has enjoyed stable and determined leadership, its neighbors have fared quite poorly. Instead of building up the muscles of competent government, democratic exercises have led to painful spasms of violence.

While Rwanda has enjoyed stable and determined leadership, its neighbors have fared quite poorly. Instead of building up the muscles of competent government, democratic exercises have led to painful spasms of violence. In 2007 and 2008, Kenya faced a wave of ethnic violence after a disputed election. Burundi, another neighbor, saw its first multi-party election quickly degenerate into a bloody civil war that lasted almost 13 years. Rwanda, with its undemocratic yet highly efficient government, offers a different approach to politics, one that stresses the importance of strong leadership and tight political control.


That being said, it is true that dictatorships in Africa have often dragged countries down. Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, for one, has led his country to economic desolation. And the Arab Spring demonstrated how even relatively stable dictatorships like Egypt under Hosni Mubarak can still collapse amidst social pressure. But while Kagame exercises absolute power, what sets him apart from his peers is that he also exercises competence and a generally more progressive ideology on fronts like environmentalism and gender inequity. But his triumphs and achievements rely on his style of leadership, policy priorities, and personality; there is no guarantee that any successor he might have may be the same way. Though Kagame may face little opposition in elections as his reign extends through the years, only time will tell if the Rwandan example of dictatorship and development proves an enduring model or a one-time fluke.