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Lars Waldorf Headshot
Scott Straus Headshot

Rwanda's Renaissance Goes off the Rails

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As expected, President Paul Kagame has just won another seven years in power (to add to the last 15) with an unconvincing 93% of the vote. The assassinations, attempted assassinations, arrests, and repression directed against political opponents and independent journalists have taken some of the shine off this "beacon for Africa." Now, with the election over, Rwanda's donors and investors may be tempted to get back to business as usual in one of Africa's fastest growing economies. That would be a terrible mistake.

Since the 1994 genocide, two trajectories have been apparent. The first is Rwanda's impressive social reconstruction, economic growth, relative transparency, and stability, which, along with Kagame's charisma, have made the country a donor darling and investment opportunity. The second trajectory is increasing authoritarianism and inequality, which have worried not only human rights organizations, but also the US State Department and UN agencies. Until recently, most donors and observers praised the former trajectory and generally kept silent about the latter. They clearly hoped these separate paths could somehow be reconciled with Rwanda (implausibly) becoming the Singapore of Africa. However, the recent violence has thrown the discrepancy between these two trajectories into sharp relief, while focusing greater attention on the costs of Rwanda's repression.

The recent period has also signalled new - and more destabilizing - trends. First, Kagame turned on four of his top generals. Two fled the country and another two were arrested. After denouncing Kagame, General Kayumba Nyamwasa barely survived an assassination attempt in South Africa. His exiled colleague, General Patrick Karegeya, is openly calling for Kagame's violent overthrow. Second, the government did not just target challengers from the Hutu majority that it feared might play the ethnic card; it also prevented Tutsi politicians and Tutsi-led newspapers from opposing Kagame. And this period's most gruesome violence was the beheading of the Green Party's Tutsi vice-president.

Donors need to seriously rethink their "development first, democracy later" strategy. First, sustainable development is dependent on good governance. Second, Kagame's ruling party has shown no inclination to democratize, now or later. In fact, there is even less political pluralism, media freedom, and independent civil society today than there was during the 2003 elections. Third, democratization gets ever more difficult as the regime becomes entrenched in its authoritarian ways. Fourth, the increasing concentration of political power and economic wealth in the hands of an ever-narrowing circle around Kagame leads to growing inequality and resentment. Finally, donors are discrediting both the principle of democracy and democracy promotion - as when the UK finances the Media High Council, which supported the two-month closure of the BBC last year and which suspended two local newspapers this year.

Donors also need to stop doing penance for the 1994 genocide by unconditionally backing Kagame. Surely, they have made enough failed bets on big man politics in Africa - just look at what happened with Bill Clinton's "new generation" of African leaders. Instead, donors should push Rwanda to build democratizing institutions. For, as President Obama rightly stated last year, "Africa doesn't need strong men; it needs strong institutions." Rwanda also needs independent voices in the media and civil society, but this requires donors and diplomats willing to protect them.

Democratization is not without risks. But the current status quo is simply not a sustainable way to build durable peace. Rwandans need to start constructing a democratic middle ground that avoids the twin evils of majoritarian dominance and minority authoritarianism. This will be a lengthy and gradual process, but one that can't be put off much longer. Just before the 2003 elections, the prominent development expert Peter Uvin warned donors that "the continuation of the status quo, and our strong involvement in it, is unacceptable. We owe it to Rwandans to do better than we did before, and I am afraid we are currently failing." Donors ignored that advice and, seven years on, Rwanda is more authoritarian and more unequal. Will they make the same mistake for the next seven years?

Lars Waldorf is Senior Lecturer at the University of York and Scott Straus is Associate Professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. They are editors of the forthcoming book, Remaking Rwanda: State Building and Human Rights after Mass Violence (University of Wisconsin Press).