Paul Kagame’s presidency has been plagued with accusations of election rigging, suppression of free speech, and unjustified imprisonment of political opponents from the very beginning. Succeeding President Pasteur Bizimungu in 2000, he has since faced three presidential elections, winning each by almost comic margins. Following the approval of his constitutional referendum in 2015, we know that he will not be leaving office any time soon; the amendment passed allows him to legally remain in office until 2034. However, despite his autocratic tendencies, his leadership has not engendered the kind of economic, political, and social decline experienced by the other autocracies we’ve examined. Development under Kagame’s leadership begs the question: was democratic freedom the necessary cost of Rwanda’s post-genocide recovery?
Rwanda has a bloody history. The genocide of 1994 left approximately 800,000 minority Tutsis dead, and fallout continued until 1999, at which point the Hutu extremists no longer held support in the northwest region, and they were deemed largely defeated. Having served as a military leader in both the Rwanda Civil War and the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide, Paul Kagame appeared as a qualified and informed candidate for public office. His role in putting an end to decades of political turmoil following independence from Belgium made Kagame’s presidency a symbol of Rwanda’s hard-fought political, economic, and social recovery.
Despite the promise of democracy Kagame’s post-genocide government offered, as of 2021 Rwanda has been classified by the Varieties of Democracy Institute as an Electoral Autocracy (EA). Kagame’s regime has overseen three presidential elections (2003, 2010, 2017) which he won by margins of 95.1%, 93.08%, and 98.8% respectively. The 2015 constitutional referendum, which would essentially grant him the ability to remain in power until 2034, passed with similar margins: 98.3% of the electorate was supposedly in favor. Each of these elections were almost universally condemned as neither free nor fair by both foreign governments and private NGOs. Accusations from Amnesty International ranged from forced voter registration to imprisonment or even assassination of political opponents. In 2017, the only other party allowed to run against Kagame’s RPF (Rwandan Patriotic Front), the Democratic Green Party, alleged that representatives had faced threats and intimidation, and had not been allowed to freely campaign, essentially assuring Kagame’s victory.
Kagame’s autocratic tendencies have not been limited to election fraud. He has denied freedom of speech to independent media, arresting critics under the guise of “inciting riots”. He has also neglected to condemn and prosecute Hutu revenge killings carried out by Tutsi extremists since the end of the genocide, while frequently accusing any Hutu opposition of ethnic discrimination when faced with criticism. More recently, his Covid-19 policies have also drawn backlash. Unvaccinated Rwandans are banned from any public space, including public transport, restaurants, and sport stadiums. There have also been allegations of forced vaccination campaigns, reported by the BBC.
Despite Kagame’s autocratic tendencies, Rwanda has not suffered the economic consequences typical of similar regimes in Latin America and Eastern Europe. In fact, Rwanda’s economy has seen the opposite effect: Rwanda’s GDP per capita increased by 141.9% from 2000 to 2020, surpassing Sub-Saharan Africa’s GDP per capita increase of 139.1%. Poverty declined from 77% in 2001 to 55% in 2017, while child mortality dropped by 2/3. Kagame has also promised to make Rwanda a middle-income country by 2035, and a high-income country by 2050, per his Vision 2050 plan.
Development has not been limited to Rwanda’s economy. Under Kagame, Rwanda has joined the African Union, and the Commonwealth of Nations. The death penalty has been abolished, while the literacy rate and life expectancy have increased dramatically. Most impressive considering Rwanda’s status as an Electoral Autocracy is its reputation for low corruption; in 2014, independent watchdog Transparency International ranked Rwanda as the 5th most “clean” country out of the 47 in sub-Saharan Africa. Similarly unique to Rwanda is female representation in government. As of 2020, it is one of only 3 countries in the world with a female majority in its National Parliament.
While it is important to distinguish Kagame from the list of autocrats that have led their countries to economic ruin, his autocratic tendencies are a legitimate cause for concern. While his policies may align with Rwanda’s best interest for now, this may not be the case by 2036. By the time he’s no longer fit for office, he may have eroded Rwanda’s democracy to the point where he is impossible to remove without a coup. Kagame’s behavior also sets a dangerous precedent for his successors. His ability to remain in office rests on the inability of Rwanda’s politics to remove him from it. While Kagame has proven to be a benevolent autocrat, Rwanda’s next dictator might not be quite as competent.