On April 7, Rwanda marked the 25th anniversary of the 1994 genocide. It will forever remain a dark chapter in the country’s history. In 100 days an estimated 800,000 people were hunted down, hacked and dismembered because of their ethnic identity.
Despite the mood of sombre reflection that dominated the anniversary, it was also a time for President Paul Kagame to reflect on his triumph: how he led Tutsi rebels from Uganda to stop the genociders, and later rebuilt a country from its embers.
A former general in the Ugandan Army, at 28 years old Kagame helped Ugandan President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni come to power. Aged 36, he marched to Kigali and ended the genocide. Four years later he played a key role in the ousting of Zaire dictator Mobutu Sese Seko.
Kagame stepped out of Museveni's shadow more quickly than his mentor had anticipated. He inherited a battered country brought to its knees by conflict and a bitter ethnic rivalry. In an abundance of failed states, Rwanda, under Kagame’s leadership, is often hailed as an African success story. Annual economic growth rates have consistently been positive, averaging above six percent in the past five years.
By 2016 his policies reduced the number of people living under extreme poverty by 22 percent, bridging the gender gap by giving women opportunities in government and waging a war against corruption. Kigali is Africa's cleanest city, a line that had spread the legend of Kagame's leadership the world over.
His critics, however, say that he tolerates no dissent, which he has not made a secret. A streak that has put him in direct conflict with Uganda. He closed the border with Uganda recently after a public falling out with Museveni, who he accuses of protecting elements hostile to his government, accusations Uganda rejects saying that it was Kagame who was targeting his opponents on Ugandan soil.
The recent row has however provided an example of Kagame fighting the shadows of his own success which have been built on his tight command and control. Paranoid, he controls the media. Those who speak out against the government are forced to flee. Even those who question the overriding narrative about the genocide are targeted.
Rwanda is a small and linguistically homogeneous country and easy to control. Since pre-colonial times, Rwanda has always been politically highly centralised. Rwandans also tend to listen to their leaders, a social phenomenon that helped the genocide unfold in 1994.
The success of Kagame is connected to the horrors of the genocide. He exploits Western guilt for abandoning Rwanda in its time of need. He has always been quick to remind them that they don’t have the moral high ground to question what Kigali does. He has justified his authoritarian approach with economic growth; aid and foreign investment keep pouring in.
Add to the unending hagiography articles hailing Kagame's leadership as a model for Africa. He is the leader who hobnobs with top celebrities like talk show host Ellen DeGeneres, Chinese technologist Jack-Ma, Rwanda is also a shirt sponsor of Arsenal Football Club. Kagame’s successful rule has been based on both glamour and tight control.
A former intelligence chief in the Ugandan army, he has been accused of infiltrating other governments. He has imprisoned opposition leaders, hunted dissidents abroad to the outcry of human rights organisations. Paranoid of his critics at home and abroad, Kagame’s lethal intelligence service with assassins who can operate anywhere is threatening regional stability.
Many of his close friends have fled Rwanda to neighbouring countries. Most notably his close confidant, Tutsi rebel and later chief of staff of the Rwandan Army, Kayumba Nyamwasa, who fled to South Africa to form the opposition. Just as Kagame’s Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) party was formed abroad, Nyamwasa has started the Rwanda National Congress abroad, which Kagame is not comfortable with.
He may have managed to outwit his mentor Museveni and overseen sound human development, but 25 years on, has he built a Rwanda that is beyond entrenched tribal suspicion?
What if he stepped down, is Rwanda ready to build on his achievements without the danger of the old ghosts of genocide?
In an attempt to bury that dark past, laws were passed that criminalise acts of ‘sectarianism’ and ‘genocide ideology’ that are defined as ‘actions which aim at propounding wickedness or inciting hatred’, including ‘laughing at one’s misfortune’. It is debatable whether these laws will eradicate ethnic rivalry or merely silence any discussion of ethnicity, and if they are sustainable beyond Kagame’s rule.
One of the consequences of Kagame’s achievements is that his rule has become so successful neither he nor his critics can see anyone to potentially replace him, leaving a dangerous vacuum once the strongman is gone.
He is politically secure at home for now, his main worry being ‘dissidents’ from abroad who are threatening his position. To avoid the inevitable fate of ignominy, it is time to reflect on a stance that involves engaging in dialogue with his critics. Failure to prepare his successor could see his legacy end like that of Museveni; old, irritable and obsessed with past triumphs.