Published in Nw York Times
By CHARLES LANDOW
No one is quite sure what to make of Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame. Since his re-election last month with 93 percent of the vote, the United States has reacted warily. The White House cited “a series of disturbing events” in a statement that pointedly congratulated “the people of Rwanda,” not Kagame himself. “Democracy is about more than holding elections,” the statement said.This is a step in the right direction. The United States and others must continue supporting Rwandans without directly boosting Kagame.
Why is this uncertain embrace necessary? After all, Kagame has made his country one of Africa’s development stars. The economy is growing, the streets are clean and secure, corruption is under control, and women enjoy a prominent role. Between 2000, when Kagame took office, and 2008, Rwanda’s total economic output and per capita income more than doubled. The primary school completion rate rose from just over one-fifth to just over half. Life expectancy increased from 43 years to 50.
Kagame is also positioning Rwanda strongly for future growth. The country was named the top reformer in the World Bank’s Doing Business 2010 ranking, vaulting up 76 places from its 2009 ranking. Rwanda also gained ground in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, moving from 102nd place in 2008 to 89th in 2009. Clearly work remains to be done, but the trends are positive.
Kagame has become a much-feted figure. In 2009 alone, according to his campaign Web site, he was honored by the Clinton Global Initiative, the United States Fund for Unicef and Florida State University, among others.
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Many, though, believe that Kagame is scared less of renewed conflict than of plots against him by military officers in his own circle. This is a decidedly less honorable rationale for repression.
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Foreign assistance is an obvious lever since it makes up some one-fifth of Rwanda’s economy. Donors should prioritize aid to civil society groups independent of the government, such as nongovernmental organizations, political parties, media outlets and others in a position to foster genuine political dialogue. The U.S. Millennium Challenge Corporation’s threshold program for Rwanda is already assisting some such groups. If they give any support to the government itself, donors should seek ways to ensure that it builds institutional capacity for the country’s continued progress, not political capacity for Kagame’s continued power.
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Kagame himself can help clear the air. He should ensure robust investigations of the pre-election violence, protect freedoms of assembly and speech, and declare unambiguously that he will not seek a constitutional change to extend his stay in power.
Even given recent events, Kagame is not an unmitigated despot. But his limits on freedom are still dangerous. A constrained political climate punctuated by violence is hardly the way to preserve stability in a country still recovering from genocide and in a region full of conflict and the potential for more. Such a climate risks undoing Rwanda’s progress and tarnishing the legacy that this president has so carefully built.
Charles Landow is associate director of the Civil Society, Markets and Democracy Initiative at the Council on Foreign Relations