President Paul Kagame under scrutiny:Click Here to watch the BBC Interview
Published by the Economist
IN AN election marred by murder, censorship and a dearth of meaningful opposition, Paul Kagame, the incumbent, is set to win 90% of the vote on a large turnout. Preparations are already being made for his inauguration in September. His expected second seven-year term will, if the constitution is respected, be his last. What is less clear is whether the ledger of his achievements will overall be positive.
Mr Kagame is determined to defend his record, especially in economic development, against a rising tide of criticism of his human-rights record, especially abroad. Providing food for all, he says, is his biggest achievement. “For the first time in Rwandan history we have almost 100% food security.” He says his government has given villagers cattle, fertiliser and better seed. He reels off a list of crops that, he claims, have had record harvests: cassava, maize, rice, sorghum, sweet potatoes and wheat. “We’re selling food to Burundi, Tanzania and Congo,” he says with pride.
Another vaunted feat is progress for women. Rwanda has the highest share of women in government in the world. They may now inherit land, a rarity in many parts of Africa. A lot of money, he says, has been spent to set up women in business and keep girls in school. Police and the courts have tackled wife-beaters. “The numbers are hard to come by,” he says. “But we think domestic abuse has gone down.” Mr Kagame says women are steadier and more honest: “I would be very happy for a woman to succeed me.”
He also insists he has strengthened government institutions. “There is ever more transparency and accountability.” Rwanda, he claims, is one of Africa’s least corrupt countries. Transparency International, a Berlin-based anti-corruption monitor, rates it as the cleanest in east Africa. In most surveys of governance, Rwanda has bounded ahead.
It has certainly got a lot richer under Mr Kagame’s rule. Its GDP has doubled, albeit to a tiny $5 billion, since 2005. Most Rwandans have medical insurance. Tax revenue may rise by 12% this year and GDP is expected to go up by 6%. Mr Kagame says he will use his next term to strengthen the tax base by boosting small businesses.
Mr Kagame says his themes of more food, more power for women and less graft add up to “a return of dignity” for ordinary Rwandans. Yet Rwandans must not succumb to a beggarly mindset. “We want to develop this can-do mentality,” he says, to wean the country off foreign aid. Admittedly, that is a long way off. Fully half of government spending is paid for by foreign donors, led by Britain, the European Union and the United States. Mr Kagame wants to see it fall to 30% by 2017.
Mr Kagame claims success, too, in his foreign and trade policies, particularly towards his gigantic, chaotic neighbour, Congo. He wants Rwanda to become a trading hub between Congo and east Africa. He has scrapped immigration procedures for east Africans. Kenyan and Ugandan accountants and computer buffs are coming. “Integration,” says Mr Kagame, “is the only way to go.” He wants the newly formed East African Community, which includes Burundi as well the core trio of Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, to co-operate with Congo to create a company to run mining concessions itself. “We cannot just be a corridor to smuggle minerals out,” he says.
But a more prickly issue is the continuing presence in Congo of the remnants of the Hutu militias who perpetrated the massacres of 1994. Mr Kagame says his forces will not go back into Congo to hunt them down, as they did immediately after Mr Kagame’s ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) took power, setting off, according to his critics, a cycle of violence that led to a five-year regional conflagration that left perhaps 4m people dead. These days he seems more confident that the Congolese government can handle its own security—and corral the worst of Rwanda’s Hutu génocidaires on Congolese territory. “This is creating more momentum. Many suspicions have been almost eliminated.”
Few deny that Mr Kagame has achieved a great deal on the economic front and as a regional actor. It is his human-rights record that makes even his fans queasy. In the past few months a string of attacks on Rwandans with whom he has fallen out or who publicly oppose him has further besmirched his reputation, though he strenuously denies any involvement in them and solid evidence implicating him has not been produced. At the least, however, his friends seem to be doing a lot of dirty work on his behalf. Journalists who support him call the opposition “cockroaches” and “traitors”, the same words used by the génocidaires as a prelude to the massacres of 1994.
One incident, far away in South Africa, was a failed attempt in June on the life of a former head of Rwandan intelligence, Lieutenant-General Faustin Kayumba Nyamwasa. Several of the gunmen arrested after the event were Rwandan. The general had fled Rwanda after suggestions that he was building his own power-base in the army. “People want to taint this regime,” says Mr Kagame. “They want it to be seen as tightening up, repressive, killing people…Rwanda was not involved in the shooting. We want to know what happened, but South Africa has not been forthcoming.” Mr Kagame says that General Nyamwasa may have teamed up with another Rwanda spy chief, also in exile in South Africa, Colonel Patrick Karegaya. Mr Kagame claims the colonel is now in the pay of South Africa’s military intelligence.
The president makes light of other cases involving security men. Brigadier-General Jean Bosco Kazura, who was said to have been arrested after making an unannounced trip to South Africa to watch the World Cup, was merely reprimanded. A former head of the air force, Major-General Charles Muhire, is being investigated for corruption. Lieutenant-General Karenzi Karake, another senior intelligence man, is facing a disciplinary inquiry after meeting another general’s wife in a hotel. None of this, says Mr Kagame, has anything to do with him—or with politics.
Watch your step
Then there is the harassment of opposition politicians and independent journalists. A deputy editor of Umuvugizi, a newspaper, Jean-Léonard Rugambage, was recently shot dead outside his house in Kigali. The opposition Green Party’s deputy leader, André Kagwa Rwisereka, was found with his head almost hacked off in the country’s south. Mr Kagame says a suspect has been arrested for the journalist’s killing. He has no clue who may have killed Mr Rwisereka. “I am defeated by the rationale of it,” he says. And he is unfazed by the case of a leading Hutu politician, Victoire Ingabire, who had hoped to compete against him in the presidential poll. She must face charges, he says, of “denying the genocide” while in exile. For her part, Ms Ingabire, no angel, blames Mr Kagame’s rule.
Despite the likely emergence of a de facto one-party state, the president says he detests the sycophancy of some of his RPF disciples. The New Times, an English-language newspaper, has been too servile to him and his party, he says. So he has asked the Aga Khan, a newspaper magnate in the region, to set up a feistier alternative in Kigali; he has yet to agree. Rwanda is no longer an easy place for independent minds.
Presuming he is re-elected, Mr Kagame will be only 59 when his second term ends in 2017. A true test of his sincerity as a democrat will be his willingness to surrender power, as the constitution demands. Meanwhile he will be a formidable if fearsome operator, at home and abroad.