Africa. A continent full of corrupt, despotic leaders. Warlords. Terrorists. Ethnic groups slaughtering each other. A hopeless continent, which is stuck in the perpetual cycle of famine, war, and crime. A continent that has never truly shaken off the burden placed on its immense, diverse back by the colonial powers. At least, so it seems on the surface.
Enter Kigali. 20 years after the brutal genocide and civil war, which killed around 800,000 people, the Rwandan capital city is now one of the most livable in Africa. Just 20 years before, Hutu militias were roaming the streets with machetes, slaughtering ethnic Tutsis en masse. Now, on the last Saturday of each month, Rwandans from 18-65 are mandated to take part in Umuganda – 4 hours of community service. This has helped to make Kigali among the cleanest cities on planet Earth.
Umuganda is just a single aspect of the reconciliation that has been going on in Rwanda since the end of the civil war in 1994. To see who is behind it, look no further than one visionary – Paul Kagame, who has united and developed his country against immense odds.
Paul Kagame was born in 1957, in what is now modern day Rwanda. When he was just two years old, the Rwandan revolution occurred. The Hutu population overthrew Belgian colonial rule and hunted down Tutsis, who were seen as collaborators with the Belgians. As a result, Kagame and his family fled north, into Uganda, along with 300,000 other Tutsis. In 1981, he joined forces with Yoweri Museveni in the Ugandan Bush war (also known as the Ugandan civil war), which eventually led to Museveni becoming president of Uganda. Kagame, meanwhile, earned a high ranking position within Museveni’s army, the National Resistance Army (NRA).
Kagame and another Rwandan in the NRA, Fred Rwigema, formed the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) in 1987, with the backing of the NRA. They hoped to liberate Rwanda from decades of Hutu rule, which included the suppression of Tutsi and Twa minorities. In 1990, the RPF invaded Rwanda from their bases in Uganda, starting the Rwandan civil war. After Fred Rwigema was killed on October 2nd of 1990, Kagame took leadership of the RPF. After three years of guerrilla fighting, the Arusha Accords were signed in 1993. This “peace agreement” was a complete failure. Both sides still distrusted each other and had no chance of peacefully integrating back together. As a result, the peace agreement failed in the worst possible way – a genocide. The Rwandan genocide resulted in the death of around 800,000 Tutsi, Twa, and moderate Hutu. Through expertise leadership, Kagame, despite the genocide, managed to lead the RPF to victory by 1994. The Rwandan civil war was finished, with a country in ruins. The population had dropped from 8 million to 6 million. Hundreds of thousands of Hutu, fearing retaliation for the genocide by Kagame, fled into the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Kagame was now in a difficult position, with ethnic tensions still high and his country in shambles. He appointed Pasteur Bizimungu, a Hutu, as president, in order to demonstrate unity. However, Bizimungu was a merely a figurehead for Kagame and resigned in 2000, allowing for Kagame to become president. In 2003, Rwanda put into place a new constitution, which included bans on political parties that based themselves on ethnic groups and created a bicameral parliament system. This constitution was approved by Rwandan voters in a referendum with, 93% voting in favor of the new constitution.
Kagame also made significant moves to boost the economic well-being of Rwanda. In 2000, he launched vision 2020, an ambitious plan to turn Rwanda into an educated, middle-income country by 2020. By 2011, 66% of Kagame’s goals were “on track”, as reported by the Rwandan Ministry of Finance and Economic Planning. While this isn’t perfect, the efforts of Rwanda to achieve its lofty goals show in its GDP growth rate over the last 10 years, 8th on Earth.
Critics of Kagame point to his repression of free press, and his lifting of term limits that could extend his ability to stay in power until 2034. However, Kagame is far less brutal than most other continental dictators, such as Omar Al-Bashir in Sudan, who has perpetuated a genocide of his own in Darfur. More importantly, Kagame has truly bettered the life of his people. Hutu and Tutsi live peacefully together, as neighbors. As it’s neighbor to the south, Burundi, falls into chaos, Rwanda remains a stable country. Compare this to the alternative – Tutsi and Hutu slaughtering each other as they did in 1994, with ethnic violence and poverty running rampant.
Indeed, the regime of Paul Kagame is not reminiscent of a typical African dictator, but rather closely mirrors that of Lee Kuan Yew, the benevolent dictator of Singapore who turned a poor backwater into an economic titan in Asia. Like Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore, Kagame also inherited a multi-ethnic, poor state. Likewise, both Yew and Kagame were forced to be rather authoritarian – not out of a desire to embezzle from the public, but rather to unite their countries and jumpstart economic growth.
The bottom line is that African countries such as Rwanda need to prioritize economic growth over democracy. While having both simultaneously is nice, it is hard to attain without massive backing from the United States or the European Union. Economic growth allows for education and industrialization. It allows for nations to feed their people and modernize. Economic growth is also a huge deterrent to war – why fight and destroy resources when there is money to be made? In this, Kagame has succeeded. With Rwanda united and growing, one can only hope that Kagame and rulers like him become more prevalent in Africa.