The Kagame Dilemma

No one is quite sure what to make of Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame. Since his re-election this month with 93 percent of the vote, the United States has reacted warily. The White House cited “a series of disturbing events” in a statement that pointedly congratulated “the people of Rwanda,” not Kagame himself. “Democracy is about more than holding elections,” the statement said.

This is a step in the right direction. The United States and others must continue supporting Rwandans without directly boosting Kagame.

Why is this uncertain embrace necessary? After all, Kagame has made his country one of Africa’s development stars. The economy is growing, the streets are clean and secure, corruption is under control, and women enjoy a prominent role. Between 2000, when Kagame took office, and 2008, Rwanda’s total economic output and per capita income more than doubled. The primary school completion rate rose from just over one-fifth to just over half. Life expectancy increased from 43 years to 50.

Kagame is also positioning Rwanda strongly for future growth. The country was named the top reformer in the World Bank’s Doing Business 2010 ranking, vaulting up 76 places from its 2009 ranking. Rwanda also gained ground in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, moving from 102nd place in 2008 to 89th in 2009. Clearly work remains to be done, but the trends are positive.

Kagame has become a much-feted figure. In 2009 alone, according to his campaign Web site, he was honored by the Clinton Global Initiative, the United States Fund for Unicef and Florida State University, among others.

But a whiff of repression now lingers over Kagame’s record, giving many supporters second thoughts. In the months before the presidential election, the deputy leader of an opposition party and the deputy editor of an opposition newspaper were killed; a prominent politician who intended to challenge Kagame was arrested; other opposition parties were excluded from the election; and a former head of the army and Kagame critic was shot in South Africa, where he had fled. (The government has denied involvement in the violent incidents.)

Given Rwanda’s social and economic success, why should Kagame fear real democratic competition? His answer is that robust political debate could imperil Rwanda’s stability, still fragile after the 1994 genocide. As he wrote recently in the Financial Times, “Those who look in from outside ignore the fact that competitive democracy requires sustained social cohesion.” Ethnic tensions are indeed not fully healed in Rwanda, where the minority Tutsi (some 15 percent of the population) govern the majority Hutu. Avoiding the prospect of further atrocities is clearly a legitimate concern.

Many, though, believe that Kagame is scared less of renewed conflict than of plots against him by military officers in his own circle. This is a decidedly less honorable rationale for repression.

Kagame’s real intentions may not be clear until his term ends in 2017; according to the Rwanda constitution, he cannot run again. But the United States and others concerned about Rwanda’s trajectory need not stand idly by until then. Instead, they should de-personalize their policy by finding ways to help the country without strengthening or flattering its leader.

Foreign assistance is an obvious lever since it makes up some one-fifth of Rwanda’s economy. Donors should prioritize aid to civil society groups independent of the government, such as nongovernmental organizations, political parties, media outlets and others in a position to foster genuine political dialogue. The U.S. Millennium Challenge Corporation’s threshold program for Rwanda is already assisting some such groups. If they give any support to the government itself, donors should seek ways to ensure that it builds institutional capacity for the country’s continued progress, not political capacity for Kagame’s continued power.

Another part of this de-personalization policy involves recognition for Kagame on the world stage. Universities, non-profits, and others should not add to his list of honors until he has firmly established his commitment to full democracy. Foreign leaders also should keep their relations with Kagame correct but not effusive. This means no visits by Kagame to the White House or analogous residences, and no visits by presidents or prime ministers to Kigali. It also means publicly pointing out Kagame’s flaws.

Kagame himself can help clear the air. He should ensure robust investigations of the pre-election violence, protect freedoms of assembly and speech, and declare unambiguously that he will not seek a constitutional change to extend his stay in power.

Even given recent events, Kagame is not an unmitigated despot. But his limits on freedom are still dangerous. A constrained political climate punctuated by violence is hardly the way to preserve stability in a country still recovering from genocide and in a region full of conflict and the potential for more. Such a climate risks undoing Rwanda’s progress and tarnishing the legacy that this president has so carefully built.

Charles Landow, associate director of the Civil Society, Markets and Democracy Initiative at the Council on Foreign Relations.