Despite impressive progress, questions raised over Kagame leadership style

Saturday August 1 2015

President Paul Kagame celebrates after winning

President Paul Kagame celebrates after winning the 2010 election. If Rwanda’s Constitution is amended, he will be eligible to run for a third term. FILE PHOTO | SIMON MAINA | AFP

By Hilary Muthuma

Rwanda President Paul Kagame has presided over a remarkable transformation in the country, after the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, with a skill rarely seen in Africa. He has been a sort of godsend — focused, strict, and running a disciplined state.

Donors hold him up as a shining example, and aid flows into Rwanda because he is a hands-on chief executive who makes things work. Even his harshest critics acknowledge that much has improved under his stewardship.

Progressive in many ways, President Kagame has pushed for more women in political office: Today Rwanda has the highest percentage of women in parliament in the world. He has also defused ethnic rivalry, the issue that led to the genocide.

President Kagame has made indisputable social and economic progress, expanding the economy by an average of eight per cent annually over the past 10 years, by wisely investing in infrastructure projects.

Rwanda now has one of the fastest-growing economies on the continent, despite the fact that it doesn’t have significant mineral deposits and is landlocked.

One innovative way in which President Kagame monitors the performance of his government is by making his officials sign performance contracts, delineating specific economic targets and ensuring that they are met. He also does not tolerate corruption and wasteful expenditure.

By current Constitutional presidential terms limits, he should be out of office in 2017. But the Rwandan parliament has voted to amend the Constitution so that he can run again.

President Kagame argues that the security and wellbeing of the Rwandan people cannot be reduced to the simple question of a third term. In any case, he contends, that decision is not his but Rwandans’ to make.

President Kagame is one of the most complicated leaders in Africa because he is both impressive and repressive. The question is not so much about his results but his methods.

He has a reputation for being ruthless, and as the accolades have stacked up, so too has condemnation for his crackdown on his perceived enemies.

Rwandan dissidents who have fled claim that President Kagame’s Rwanda is one of the most straitjacketed countries in the world. Few people inside the country are comfortable speaking freely about the president, and many aspects of life are dictated by the government.

Rwanda is unusual in Africa because it has always been tightly controlled. Before colonisation in the 19th century, there were few strong, centralised states in Africa. Rwanda, ruled by Tutsi kings, was one of them.

Rwanda today can probably best be described as a society with a technocratic leadership that utilises past authoritarian traditions to govern.

Rwanda is said to have one of the most efficient intelligence services in Africa. And, despite his authoritarian tendencies, President Kagame has become a symbol of progress in a continent with dysfunctional states.

So, while the majority of Rwandans support the clamour for a third term, the minority who do not, rarely speak out for fear of reprisals. Rwanda is essentially a one-party state.

Groups like Amnesty International have produced many reports with claims of President Kagame’s government clamping down on Rwandan society.

Laws that criminalise acts of “sectarianism” and “genocide ideology,” for example, are criticised for silencing any discussion of ethnicity.

Some Hutus claim that Tutsis are favoured by the government under the guise of an affirmative-action programme designed to help “genocide survivors” — who by definition are tutsi.

President Kagame has capitalised on his powerful connections and his record of achievement to deflect criticism. He also pointedly reminds the international community that it abandoned Rwanda in its hour of need, and so no one on the outside occupies the moral high ground.

There are those who argue that this is exactly what Africa needs: More leaders like President Kagame who have the skills to govern efficiently.

Certain liberties, it is argued, are not so important because no one can enjoy freedom of speech when they are killing one another or when they are starving. Maintaining stability and providing essential basic needs is therefore seen as more important — that the end justifies the means.

Perhaps a third term for President Kagame is what Rwanda needs. But wise leaders should know when to let go and trust others to carry on.

Hilary Muthuma is the registrar of Eelo University in Somaliland.
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