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.

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The Emperor’s Clothes

DSCF0368Within the Netherlands, the city of Rotterdam is well known for its skyline: a jagged row of modern towers which spreads away from the River Maas like a bar graph. Locals are probably overdoing it when they refer to the city as “Manhattan on the Maas”, given that the soggy ground limits most towers to about twenty storeys, but many of the buildings are undeniably impressive. Bombed heavily during the Second World War, Rotterdam has since become a showcase for the bold style of modern Dutch architecture in which a building isn’t a building if it doesn’t have at least one wildly sloping face or precarious overhang. Architecture students come from across Europe to visit the Rubik’s-shaped Cube Houses, harbourside Hotel New York and knife-like train station.

The latest example of this style opened recently on the south bank of the river: a set of three glassy towers which loom high over the Erasmusbrug (Erasmus Bridge) connecting the northern and southern halves of the city. The towers were designed by star architect and local boy Rem Koolhaas, whose skills in designing buildings clearly don’t extend to naming them – after some debate, developers agreed the towers should jointly be known as ‘De Rotterdam’ (‘The Rotterdam’).

I found myself in the area a couple of weeks ago and snuck inside for a look around. From the lobby, the buildings were undeniably impressive, with all the features one would expect of a world-class office building and luxury hotel: an upmarket coffee bar, beautiful blonde receptionists, sweeping panoramas of the traffic on the river, and a collection of comfortable furniture which probably cost more than my house. However, when I snuck up to the upper floors, I was surprised to find that most of them were empty, with bare concrete floors littered with dangling wires, tools and paintbrushes. There were few people around and most of the offices and parking spaces were unoccupied. According to news reports, Koolhaas designed the towers long ago but was able to secure funding only after the economic crisis hit, when the cost of land fell and builders’ wages plummeted. It now seemed that the same weak economy which had enabled the project to begin might ultimately doom it to failure.

The Netherlands was hit hard by the global economic downturn. The collapse of Britain’s Royal Bank of Scotland Group was triggered partly by the failings of its Dutch subsidiary, ABN Amro, and the Dutch government was forced to provide a costly bailout. The economy went into recession, unemployment hit eight percent and the price of the country’s slender old town houses fell sharply. Several years later, the Dutch economy is still looking pretty bruised, with many people out of work and the government running a fearsome budget deficit. With natural gas forming a significant slice of Dutch export earnings, the situation has been exacerbated by plummeting energy prices, while Dutch hopes of a special ‘year of trade with Russia’ ended abruptly last year when Russian-backed forces first invaded Crimea, and then shot down a Malaysian Airlines flight with hundreds of Dutch people on board.

The centre-right governing coalition responded to the slump in much the same way as their British counterparts: with billions of euros in spending cuts, sharp tax rises and reform of the complex welfare system. For people who had long been accustomed to receiving generous government support and enjoying a high quality of life, it’s been a bumpy ride. Recently there have been some welcome signs of a turnaround – after two years of contraction, the Dutch economy grew 0.8 percent in 2014. A falling euro has helped boost exports, and most analysts are predicting higher growth over the next two years. However, it remains to be seen whether the country can recover its former prosperity, or whether the Dutch, like others in Europe, will have to adjust to permanently lower standards of living. At the very least, it looks likely that a system which once heavily subsidised the lifestyles of part-time workers and parents will become far less benevolent, making the Netherlands less like Scandinavia and more like Britain or the United States. The underlying fundamentals of the economy seem to be improving, but like the new skyscrapers in Rotterdam, that could turn out to be a mirage.

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A House Divided

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Last week was one of my favourite times of year in the Netherlands: Carnival, an annual celebration held in the run-up to Easter, during which half the country braves the cold and rain to enjoy several days of drinking, costumed parades, marching bands and more drinking.

I say “half the country” because Carnival is only celebrated in the south of the Netherlands, in the region between the River Maas and the Belgian border – a reflection of the traditional divide between the predominantly Protestant north of the country and the largely Catholic south. This religious divide is a topic I explore extensively in my book, both because it explains a lot about how the Netherlands developed its unique culture, and because writing about it gave me an excuse to spend several days drinking beer while dressed as a tiger.

I won’t repeat the whole story here, but suffice it to say that until relatively recently, the Netherlands was quite starkly divided on religious lines, with Dutch Catholics and Protestants using different schools, hospitals, football clubs and even newspapers depending on which faith they belonged to. Dividing the population into these faith-based groups – known as zuilen, or pillars – made it possible to ensure peace and equality between communities which previously had been mired in a bloody war.

In recent years these pillars have largely dissolved, thanks to the growing popularity of atheism, and the growth of a more mobile, more educated workforce which blurred the traditional boundaries. However, the pillars have left behind an enduring legacy, including a national culture in which people attach huge importance to the need for discussion and compromise. People will happily spend hours debating even the most mundane of issues, and in Dutch politics there’s little of the partisan point-scoring seen in countries like the UK. You could even argue that many of the things which the Netherlands is now most famous for – homosexual equality, for example – are partly a result of the long tradition of giving each minority group an equal say, and ensuring that their rights are protected.

Although a majority of Dutch are now atheists, there are still places where conservative values reign supreme, such as in the staunchly Protestant Dutch ‘Bible Belt’. I’ve also been surprised to find that despite the Netherlands’ reputation as a freewheeling country where anything goes, there’s still quite a strong conservative streak running through Dutch society, with people attaching huge importance to hard work and family, and frowning on anything which smacks of overindulgence. Woe betide anyone who dares show off their new sports car.

This year, I went to two Carnival celebrations – one in the ancient city of Breda, to the south of Rotterdam, and the other in Eindhoven, a large southern city best known as the home of the Dutch electrical giant Philips. Both cities have a reputation for holding particularly rowdy celebrations, and they didn’t disappoint – tens of thousands of people had turned out in costume for vast street parties which would put the Notting Hill Carnival to shame. A week later, my hangover has eased just about enough to upload some pictures here. If you want to know more, you’ll have to buy the book…

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