The World’s Most Popular Dictator

Kigali, where I recently spent a week or so, is a beautiful city: a vast cobweb of tree-lined boulevards which rise and fall over the surrounding ridges and valleys. Viewed from the air, the famous ‘Thousand Hills’ of Rwanda stretch like a rumpled green blanket away from the city, ending at the shimmering shores of Lake Kivu. To the outside world, though, the country is famous not for its beauty but for other reasons: the terrible genocide which took place there, and the spectacular recovery which followed.

When the rebel forces of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) swept into Kigali and ended the genocide in July of 1994, they found themselves in control of a devastated country. Close to a million people had been butchered in a little over three months, many of them by former friends, colleagues and neighbours. Kigali’s graceful streets were littered with the corpses of ethnic minority Tutsis and those who had sought to protect them. Thousands of women had been raped, and thousands of limbs amputated by machete-wielding extremists. According to one study, roughly two-thirds of the country’s children had seen a close relative or friend murdered. It was hard to imagine how the country could ever recover.

In the two decades since then, however, Rwanda has experienced a remarkable turnaround. Average life expectancy, for example, has increased from 36 years to 56. The Rwandan economy is growing at more than eight percent a year, and child poverty has fallen by around two-thirds. A national anti-malaria programme has cut malaria-related deaths by 85 percent, while nearly two-thirds of the members of the Rwandan parliament are women (compared with around a fifth in the UK). Waves of foreign investment have transformed Kigali’s skyline and the city is famously litter-free, thanks to a nationwide ban on plastic bags and an army of brush-wielding cleaners.

As a result of this progress, Rwanda has become something of a poster child for the international community; welcome proof of the good that donors can do. Roughly forty percent of the Rwandan government’s budget is paid for by foreign do-gooders – the UK government, for example, is scheduled to give nearly £100m this year alone. The two Bills of international development – Clinton and Gates – are regular visitors to Kigali, and Tony Blair is an official adviser to the RPF guerrilla leader turned President of Rwanda, Paul Kagame. Jogging around the city early on a Sunday morning, I had to stop twice to let the motorcades of visiting foreign presidents pass, while the car park of the famous Hotel des Mille Collines – Hollywood’s “Hotel Rwanda” – was overflowing with the white Toyota Land Cruisers of resident aid workers. To those interested in turning around failed states, Rwanda provides a lesson: with a clear vision and a firm hand, it’s possible to steer even the most damaged of countries towards a brighter future.

Personally, I was never convinced by this narrative. Unfortunately, Rwanda’s rapid economic growth has been matched by a sharp decline in political freedom, and Paul Kagame’s leadership has become increasingly authoritarian. A Rwandan journalist was recently jailed for four years for editing articles critical of the President, while other critics have been forced to leave the country. In 2011, the British police accused the Rwandan government of trying to arrange the assassination of a human rights activist who had called a BBC radio show to ask Kagame whether an Arab Spring-style revolution was possible in his country. Perhaps most seriously, the Rwandan government has been accused of giving financial support to armed groups operating in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of the Congo, including the notorious M23 rebel group; adding fuel to a conflict which has already claimed an estimated four million lives. Kagame refutes these allegations, but few would dispute that he has built something close to a one-party state. At the last elections, in 2010, he won 93 percent of the vote, and the rumours in Kigali are that he may seek to amend the constitution so he can run for a third term in 2017. The New York Times recently alleged that Kagame had beaten members of his presidential staff for offences such as choosing the wrong colour curtains for his office.

To me the loss of freedom had always seemed like a very heavy price to pay for improvement in other areas. Given that many of the problems of poverty in Africa are caused in part by corruption and a lack of human rights, it seemed deeply misguided to be actively sponsoring more of the same. To turn a blind eye to dictatorships might occasionally be necessary, but to hold them up as an example of enlightened development was immoral.

After a few days in Rwanda, however, my views began to change. Entering the country from elsewhere in Africa feels a little like arriving in the centre of Paris after years in the desert. The main airport in Kigali is cleaner and more efficiently run than many in Europe, with gleaming floors and cafes offering fresh pain au chocolat alongside the rich local coffee. The roads leading through the city centre are well-maintained and immaculately swept, with proper pavements, streetlights, well-tended roundabouts and functioning traffic lights which everyone obeys. When I went out for dinner one night with some American friends, we walked home at two o’clock in the morning, chatting noisily without any fear of being mugged or hassled. Rwanda is still one of Africa’s poorest countries, but there were, as far as I could see, no homeless people and no slums.

Out in the countryside, amid a vertiginous landscape which looked like the set of Avatar, there were similar signs of progress. Small coffee-growing villages clearly were far poorer than diplomat-friendly Kigali, but the roads were still excellent. When I visited a school in a fairly remote area, I found it better-equipped than any I’d seen in Africa. The smartly-uniformed children there told me, in near-perfect English, that they would receive up to twelve years of free state education. When I chatted to a couple of policemen in French, at one of the omnipresent security roadblocks, I found them jovial and helpful in a way which the authorities in many African countries rarely are. Above all, the country seemed filled with a palpable sense of potential. Aid workers I met enthused about how easy it was to get things done – “If you have a good idea to fix something, the government will make it possible for you to do it overnight”, one said. “Kagame makes it easy to do things which we can’t do elsewhere”, said another. In a continent where getting someone to fix a leaking tap often requires weeks of waiting and phone calls, it was easy to see the appeal.

It’s clear that Rwanda still faces many serious challenges, including the question of whether the poisonous ethnic rivalries which sparked the genocide are truly extinct, or merely dormant. Less clear to me, however, was the question of whether the trade-off between freedom and development was worthwhile. I’d found it easy to take a dim view of Kagame’s leadership when reading hostile news coverage in Europe, but a lot harder when talking to a farmer who couldn’t vote freely but could send his daughters to school for the first time in their lives. Benjamin Franklin once said that any country willing to give up a little liberty in order to gain a little security deserved to have neither, and would eventually lose both. Before visiting Rwanda, I would have agreed. Afterwards, I wasn’t so sure.



One thought on “The World’s Most Popular Dictator

  1. This is a real eye-opener. I and lots of other people have no real idea of what is going on in Rwanda these days, or where the help has been coming from, so the information and detail provided by Ben Coates is both helpful and necessary.


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