Rwanda’s Unfinished Miracle

Laments about corruption, physical insecurity and unresponsive bureaucrats are a staple of life in many countries in East and Central Africa, with one notable exception: Rwanda.

The streets of its capital, Kigali, are impeccable, the roads are good, lights work and, unlike the traffic cops in Nairobi, Kampala or Dar es Salaam, police officers do not stop drivers simply to coerce bribes. Yet the architect of this miracle, President Paul Kagame, is in danger of reversing the gains that have made Rwanda a beacon of progress on the continent.

For the most part, Mr. Kagame gets laudatory media coverage, especially in Africa, and it’s easy to see why. Sustained economic growth of around 8 percent over the last decade has brought real benefits to the Rwandan people — a strikingly impressive turnaround in the years since the 1994 genocide, when more than 800,000 people, the overwhelming majority of them members of the Tutsi minority, were killed in a 100-day rampage incited and organized by members of the previous, Hutu-dominated government.

Today the word Rwanda is no longer synonymous with misery and death. The average life expectancy is 65 years, up from 48 in 1990, according to the World Health Organization. The percentage of children dying before their fifth birthday has fallen markedly, from 253 per 1,000 in 1995 to 55 per 1,000 in 2012. Most Rwandans have health insurance. There is almost universal access to basic education.

But how sustainable is this success? Mr. Kagame has guided the country since 1994, when the Rwandan Patriotic Front he led took action as the United Nations, the United States and other leading world powers did little to stop Rwanda’s genocide. As the world stood aside, R.P.F. forces, composed mainly of rebels who had been in exile in neighboring Uganda, marched into Kigali and toppled the murderous regime. From that year on Mr. Kagame exercised effective power, initially as vice president and minister of defense. He was named president after Pasteur Bizimungu resigned in 2000, and won the first election held under a new Constitution in 2003.

After easily securing a second term in 2010 elections, many people had hoped that the president would use his last constitutionally mandated term, which ends in 2017, to craft a succession plan and set the country on a path that is not dependent solely on his strong hand. Unfortunately, Mr. Kagame seems not to be planning any such transition.

During an appearance at Tufts University in Boston in April, Mr. Kagame was unwilling to offer a direct answer when asked whether he would push for changes to the Constitution to extend his rule. “I have been asked when or whether I am going to leave office right from the time when I started,” he said. “It is as if I am here just to leave. I’m here to do business on behalf of Rwandans.” Moreover, a drumbeat of commentary in Rwanda’s state-controlled media demanding changes to the Constitution reinforces speculation that he prefers to stay on.

There is little doubt that the achievements of his administration over the last two decades have been impressive. But history has shown that when leaders hang on for too long, their focus turns from improving the lives of their citizens to maintaining their own power. The example of Yoweri Museveni, president of Uganda, is a case in point. He came to power in 1986 as a revolutionary leader pledging to end despotic rule. During his early years as a reformer, he offered a signature piece of advice to fellow leaders: “The problem of Africa in general and Uganda in particular is not the people but leaders who want to overstay in power.” But Mr. Museveni, now in his 29th year in office, has not heeded his own advice. He is effectively president for life, presiding over an exhausted, graft-ridden regime.

In 2006, the Sudan-born cellphone entrepreneur Mo Ibrahim established a foundation devoted to improving African governance that offers an annual $5 million award to a freely elected head of state who governs according to his or her nation’s constitution and complies with its term limits.

On a continent of some 55 nations, the prize has been awarded three times: Joaquim Chissano of Mozambique received it in 2007, Festus G. Mogae of Botswana in 2008, and Pedro Pires of Cape Verde in 2011. No one qualified in 2009 or 2010, and the prize has gone unclaimed since 2011, apparently due to a dearth of qualified candidates.

Sadly, Mr. Kagame may disqualify himself. Rwanda has earned headlines not only for offering one of Africa’s best business environments, but also for an increasingly violent power struggle between the president and his rivals.

A prominent Kagame critic, the former intelligence chief Patrick Karegeya, was murdered in exile in Johannesburg in January. The South African government, which had been protecting Mr. Karegeya, blamed Rwanda for the killing and expelled three diplomats who justice officials said had direct links to murder plots. In another case, a former chief of staff of the Rwandan military, Kayumba Nyamwasa — once viewed as a possible successor to Mr. Kagame due to his prominent role in the R.P.F. forces that ended the genocide — has escaped several assassination attempts since he received political asylum in South Africa in 2010.

Such incidents do not bode well for Rwanda’s future. Mr. Kagame could avoid squandering the good will he has earned over two decades by yielding power gracefully and arranging an orderly transition that would help establish a sustainable democratic tradition for Rwanda. Endorsing a reformist minister within his cabinet, for example, and allowing his country to openly confront the twin challenges of maintaining progress while seeking a durable compact between the Hutus and Tutsis would secure him a place in history as one of the region’s — and Africa’s — greatest leaders.

Murithi Mutiga is an editor at the Nation Media Group in Kenya.

Deja una respuesta

Tu dirección de correo electrónico no será publicada. Los campos obligatorios están marcados con *