It’s hard not to have strong feelings about Paul Kagame, Rwanda’s president.
The one-time rebel leader, who grew up in a Ugandan refugee camp after many Tutsis were pushed out of Rwanda in the 1950s and 1960s, marched into Rwanda’s capital in mid-1994 to take power as the international community dithered, thereby ending the country’s horrific genocide. He spent the next six years working to pacify the country through various security measures and then set about modernizing Rwanda. When he became president in 2000, he announced his Vision 2020 plan to develop the country. Since 2000, his efforts have won the praise of everyone from former president U.S. Bill Clinton to Microsoft icon and philanthropist Bill Gates for rebuilding the country’s infrastructure, developing Rwandan education and health care and restoring the rule of law. He can boast an attractive record of foreign investment, and it’s hard not to credit Kagame for an average GDP growth rate of 8.1% in the past 12 years.
But Kagame has served as Rwanda’s de facto or de jure leader since 1994, and he presides over a country where political parties and freedom to assemble are severely restrained and press freedom is very low, a country where critics charge that he rules with an authoritarian style and where dissenters are forced into exile. His angelic reputation among the international community has been tarnished by his support for the M23 rebels in eastern Congo who are fighting against Congolese president Joseph Kabila.
Suffice it to say that Kagame is a complex figure — Rwanda’s semi-authoritarian savior. But as a rising power in eastern and central Africa and a touchstone for the failure of the international community to stop genocide two decades ago, the country’s political progress is just as important as its impressive economic progress. Continue reading Rwandan election highlights tension between ethnic, economic stability and authoritarianism