Rwanda is a rising hegemon in Africa. Similar to China, it is essentially a single-party state leveraging political involvement in the private sector of the economy. It is successfully using joint ventures between the state and ruling party to centralize investment in priority areas while cracking down on more overt and unproductive forms of “corruption” at the lower levels. Their leader, Paul Kagame, is becoming an indispensable voice on the world stage. As 2020 closes, Rwanda and Paul Kagame are beginning to stand tall amidst an awakening continent.
Rwanda is a paradox — a ‘development miracle’ and an authoritarian state. The economic recovery of Rwanda after the 1994 genocide that killed more than a million ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus is applauded around the world. This recovery is inextricably linked to Paul Kagame, who with his party, The Rwandan Patriotic Front, officially took power in 2000. The distinctive approach of the RPF-led regime to political involvement in the private sector of the economy set the stage for capitalist growth in energy sectors, technology, and mining. The country remains poor, but Kagame’s government is now something exceptional in Africa – a place to invest.
Rwanda was experiencing an economic boom prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Growth exceeded 10% in 2019, driven mostly by large public investments for implementation of the National Strategy of Transformation. Notably, in 2019, Rwanda recorded a record total investment level of 2.46 billion USD, 37% of which were foreign direct investments. As a member of the United Nations, African Union, Commonwealth of Nations, and most importantly, a proposed East African Federation, Rwanda is in a position to exponentially develop its economy and nation to become a global influence akin to China’s rise during the 1990s.
The miracle unfolding in our lifetime is also the rise of an authoritarian state. However, there is room to be objective while observing Paul Kagame’s presidency in Rwanda. Kagame’s government was described by Time magazine as a fulfillment of “the cliché of governance in Africa”. While the regime has maintained stability and economic growth, it has also suppressed political dissent through pervasive surveillance, intimidation, and suspected assassinations. Despite ranking 9th in the world in gender inclusivity, women, who make up 62% of the country’s legislature, have little power in key decisions of state and household. Kagame’s “permanent role of supervision” remains durable as the most recent election, he won 99% of the vote. Compounding this was the prevention of Kagame’s key rival, Diane Rwigara, from running and then arresting her – further suggesting political misconduct.
Human Rights Watch decry what they describe as rampant human rights violations that include the arbitrary detentions of lower class citizens including “street children” as part of an unofficial government program to hide “undesirable” citizens from view. Repression of the press has also been reported domestically and abroad. In September, South Africa’s National Prosecution Authority issued arrest warrants for two Rwandans accused of murdering Rwandan critic Col. Patrick Karegeya, who was found dead in his hotel room in Johannesburg on January 1, 2014.
Being in total control of his country, at 61 years of age, Paul Kagame has consolidated his position to rule essentially for life.
Nonetheless, Rwanda is a paradox—a country whose genocidal past is becoming eclipsed by the growing power of its benevolent authoritarian state. Rwanda now aspires to reach Middle Income Country (MIC) status by 2035 and High-Income Country (HIC) status by 2050. Its unique position in Africa as an “attractive place” for foreign investment shines potential to its economic outlook in the coming decades. This also places Rwanda as a central power in an emerging regional federation.
In September 2018, the East African Community appointed a twelve-member Committee of Experts to begin drafting a new constitution for an East African Confederation as a step toward full federation. By 2021, it is hoped the bloc will have a functional constitution, to be promulgated by 2023. The East African Federation (EAF) would be the largest country in Africa and the tenth-largest in the world upon its official establishment, with Paul Kagame’s Rwanda as the political and economic heart of the federation. Rwanda stands at the crossroad of governance and nation building. By 2023, its authoritarian state may be the leader of the largest country in Africa. Its economic policies serve to exponentially increase the standard of living, foreign investment, and status of a large mass of the African continent. Similar to Xi Jinping’s People’s Republic of China, the world remains in awe of its transformation while unaware of its potential. The economic success of both nations, their rapid development, and political structure stand at odds with the status quo of the democratic world.
No one is certain of the future. Rwanda in its current state is only 25 years old, the East African Federation remains at least three years away, and Covid-19 has changed the futures of many nations. Yet this distinct form of authoritarianism, as it fuels the growth of Rwanda should not be taken lightly. If the dominoes fall correctly for Paul Kagame’s Rwanda, we may see a whole new iteration of governance take root in Africa as it has in Asia.