Those attending the first YouthConnekt Africa summit in Kigali, Rwanda, earlier this month, heaped praise on the country and its president Paul Kagame.
Nigerian billionaire Tony Elumelu, who spoke about his foundation’s empowerment of African entrepreneurs, said Kagame ‘makes Africans very proud’. Other speakers included Vera Songwe, the newly appointed head of the United Nations (UN) Economic Commission for Africa, Chinese billionaire Jack Ma and South African mining magnate Patrice Motsepe.
Upbeat discussions about youth employment, bringing power to Africa and using Africa’s vast arable land were among many such meetings held in Rwanda’s new conference centre, where the 27th African Union summit took place last year. Kagame has become something of a champion of connectivity, entrepreneurship and kick-starting Africa’s development.
The youth conference also came at a good time for Kagame, who is running for a third-term re-election on Friday 4 August. It can do no harm to have your citizens witness the world lauding you as a visionary leader. Not that Kagame needs any extra support to win.
As with the previous two presidential elections in 2003 and 2010, and the December 2015 constitutional referendum to ensure Kagame a third term, there is little opposition to him this time. Those who might have been able to challenge him have been removed or frightened away.
The warning against those who might dare oppose Kagame and the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front came early on in his presidency. But it was accentuated when former president Pasteur Bizimungu was jailed in 2002 for allegedly fomenting dissent after he tried to form a political party. He was pardoned in 2007. Victoire Ingabire, who opposed Kagame in the 2010 elections, is still in jail, having received a 15-year sentence in December 2013 for wanting to overthrow the government and promoting ‘genocide ideology’ – a favourite term to discredit dissenters in Rwanda.
In the run-up to this week’s vote, three of the five candidates who were planning to run against Kagame were disqualified. Among them was the 35-year-old Diane Rwigara who was told some of the 600 names on her list of supporters – a prerequisite for independent candidates to participate in the poll – were fake.
A new Amnesty International report details human rights abuses and the atmosphere of fear in which these elections are being held. Opponents to the regime regularly disappear, claiming they have been tortured; independent non-governmental organisations find it difficult to operate and the independent media is being closely monitored, the organisation says.
Is this the price to pay for the development miracle? Are unchecked power at the top and political repression the necessary prerequisites for stability, economic growth and ‘making Africa proud’?
David Himbara, Kagame’s former adviser, says the president is offering the international community, and a large part of Rwandan society, a ‘Faustian bargain’: ‘Overlook my brutal behaviour, and I will offer you a model for economic growth in an African nation.’
But some researchers and commentators, including Himbara, are questioning the figures of Rwanda’s GDP growth and poverty reduction since the end of the genocide in 1994, saying they are based on false calculations. Statistics are particularly important as Rwanda remains something of a ‘donor darling’ 23 years after the 1994 genocide.
Up to 40% of Rwanda’s budget is made up of foreign aid – according to Himbara’s figures the highest level of donor dependency per capita in East Africa. Rwanda’s trade deficit is growing and annual per capita income is also lower than Kenya and Tanzania, he says.
Aymar Nyenyezi Bisoka, a post-doctoral fellow at the Louvain School of Political and Social Sciences who has done research in Rwanda’s rural areas, says even if some of the official figures add up, there are many questions about the quality of government assessments and whether people are free to respond truthfully.
Even when it comes to political freedoms in Rwanda, some organisations prefer to buy in to the official line. A study by the Wits School of Governance in South Africa and the Africa Regional Office of Open Society Foundations says ‘democratic culture’ in Rwanda is seen to be greater than in South Africa, Ghana, Nigeria, Zambia and Ethiopia. ‘Democratic culture’ pertains to ‘the necessary legislative, social and policy frameworks to support and protect multi-party democracy, open debate and peace’.
But researchers say civil society organisations in Rwanda – who are tightly controlled by the state – were hesitant to participate in the study. And when they did, respondents to the Wits survey gave the Rwandan government full marks on almost every score.
Donors and international organisations could argue that good statistics are hard to come by in many parts of Africa. They could claim that at least in Rwanda there’s some push by the government to ensure economic growth, rather than merely being a predator state that rules solely through corruption and violence, with no effort to uplift the poor.
Kagame clearly has nothing to fear from most observers and donors, especially within Africa. At the last summit in Addis Ababa he was elected chairperson of the AU for 2018 – no one even considered the possibility that he would no longer be Rwanda’s president.
According to the constitutional amendment in Rwanda, Kagame may be able to stand for president again in 2024 and then serve another two five-year terms.
To stay in power, he will have to continue surrounding himself with star-studded supporters and prevent any serious dissent from getting in his way. Ironically, with more connected Africans seeking greater freedom of expression, this might become more difficult to pull off as time goes by.
Liesl Louw-Vaudran, ISS Consultant
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Picture: Mugisha Don de Dieu/Flickr