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Big Gamble in Rwanda

One morning last summer, while staying at the Hôtel des Mille Collines in Kigali, Rwanda, I heard a great commotion below my first-floor window. I looked out, and saw a crowd of about one hundred distraught people pressing around a man who was dressed in a Canadian army uniform and wore the blue beret of a United Nations peacekeeper. Desperation was etched on their faces as they shouted at him in various languages.

This hotel is under the protection of the United Nations!” the officer barked. “There’s no danger!”

I walked quickly downstairs, and as I passed the officer, I saw the name on his uniform: Dallaire. A few steps away, just outside the hotel gate, crude roadblocks made of logs and wrecked cars had suddenly appeared. Crazed-looking young men with bulging eyes clustered around them, waving clubs and machetes. They eyed the gate menacingly, looking ready and eager to kill.

These figures were all actors in a film that is being made of the book Shake Hands with the Devil, an impassioned account of the United Nations’ pathetic response to the 1994 genocide written by General Roméo Dallaire,1 who was then commander of the UN peacekeeping force. Even though I knew I was witnessing a recreation of events that unfolded twelve years earlier, the scene was a powerful reminder of how far Rwanda has come since the enormous horror that was visited upon it.

After the slaughter of 1994, which ended when the Tutsi-dominated Rwandan Patriotic Front overthrew the Hutu government and seized power, Rwanda seemed likely to become either a Tutsi dictatorship or a failed state torn apart by ethnic warlords. Instead, it is stable and full of ambition. The central figure in its rebirth, President Paul Kagame, has emerged as one of the most intriguing leaders in Africa. He preaches a doctrine of security, guided reconciliation, anti-corruption, and above all a drive toward self-reliance that he hopes will free his country from its heavy dependence on foreign aid. This program has produced economic growth rates of 5 percent a year, and has won Kagame a fervent base of support among some development experts in the United States.

Josh Ruxin, the former director of a health program at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, is so enthusiastic about Rwanda’s prospects that he has pulled up stakes and moved here. He runs a “Millennium Village” project in a rural part of the country that serves as a laboratory for the development strategies of Columbia University economist and anti-poverty expert Jeffrey Sachs.

I’ve worked in fifty countries,” he told me, “and I think this is the only country on the planet that stands a chance of migrating from extreme poverty to middle income in the space of the next fifteen years.”

Yet at the same time, the Rwandan government has been criticized by human rights groups and other observers for restricting free speech and political action. Before the 2003 presidential election, the man who would have been Kagame’s principal opponent was jailed on corruption charges. Political parties may not appeal to group identity, and public statements promoting “divisionism” are forbidden. The authorities have used these limitations to imprison critics.

This contrast is striking in today’s Rwanda. Many outsiders believe that no other poor country is embarked on such a promising campaign to improve itself, and are thrilled with what President Kagame is doing. Others, however, are deeply skeptical. On a continent where development efforts have failed so spectacularly for so long, and where vast multitudes live in seemingly hopeless poverty, Rwanda’s contradictions embody a great conundrum.

With a dense population and few natural resources, Rwanda must rely on human development if it is to prosper. Kagame and other government leaders looked to top-down Asian models, especially Singapore and China, as they designed their ambitious anti-poverty plan. It rests first of all on security. The government keeps close watch on people it considers suspicious, limits their access to big towns, and periodically picks up street children and requires them either to return to their villages or accept vocational training in courses sponsored by the Red Cross. As a result of these and other measures, Kigali is probably the safest city in Africa today, and Rwanda one of the safest countries in the world. That makes foreign investors and entrepreneurs confident about moving to Rwanda. So many have arrived that this year an international school opened for their children.

Kagame believes Rwanda can rise to prosperity by becoming the trade and commercial hub of East and Central Africa, regions awash in economic resources including gold, diamonds, and a spectacular variety of minerals but plagued by inefficiency, corruption, and poverty. His strategy is to build a modern network of road, rail, and air connections; improve the education system, especially in science and information technology; encourage private investment; and oversee all of this with a state that is honest, impartial, and transparent.

Rwanda is still wretchedly poor, and tensions between its Hutu and Tutsi citizens still simmer beneath the surface. But some aid and development specialists have begun to see the country as a possible African success story. They are streaming in to build schools, open businesses, and organize development projects.

Go to the Congo, and every time you want to do anything, you have to pay under the table,” said Cathy Emmerson, a Canadian woman who runs a souvenir store and a small development project in the northern town of Ruhengeri. “Here you not only have a government that isn’t going to put its hand in your pocket, it actually encourages you.”

Other Americans are drawn to Rwanda through religious conviction. They see it as a place where people who have been through a devastating tragedy are now being redeemed by an almost unfathomable process of reconciliation. Rick Warren, the influential evangelical preacher and author of the Christian best seller The Purpose-Driven Life, is encouraging his followers to support projects in Rwanda; he has embraced Kagame (who does not attend church regularly) as a “wonderful Christian leader” and asserted that Kagame’s energy is proof that “God is blessing Rwanda.” Others, including a group that raised $5 million in Arkansas for a bank that will lend money to poor Rwandans, were attracted by the country’s most prominent clergyman, Bishop John Rucyahana, a charismatic, American-trained Anglican who says that God sent Kagame “to heal this nation and make it an example for all of Africa.”

The genocide deeply touched our hearts,” said Reverend Ian Cron, the pastor of Trinity Church in Greenwich, Connecticut, which has sent about one hundred of its four hundred parishioners on missions to Rwanda. “Kagame has done a good job of putting that country back together, so it’s fertile ground for transformation in ways that a lot of other poor third-world countries are not.”

While I was in Rwanda last summer, Bill Clinton dropped in to visit a hospital that his foundation runs near the village of Rwinkwavu. President Kagame told me that Clinton “feels some kind of guilt that he did not help Rwanda as much as he should have at the time he had the means and capacity to do that.” A few days later, Bill Gates showed up and announced that his foundation would spend $900,000 to build a medical center where doctors and technicians from across the region will be trained in treating infectious diseases.

This constellation of support has opened doors for Kagame in Washington. He has visited the White House three times in the last four years, and heard President Bush call him a “man of action” who can “get things done.” Rep. Donald M. Payne of New Jersey, chairman of the House subcommittee dealing with Africa, recently praised him as “a moral leader” who “has done an outstanding job of moving Rwanda forward” and “is well loved by the people of his country.”

Amid this enthusiasm for the new Rwanda, however, there is also doubt. According to Amnesty International, human rights advocates in Rwanda have been “forced to flee the country for fear of being persecuted or arbitrarily arrested”; journalists “face intimidation and harassment for articles criticizing government policy”; and thousands of Rwandans suspected of war crimes have fled to neighboring countries “because of suspicion of the authorities and rumors of politically motivated ‘disappearances.’” Human Rights Watch asserts that the government has “equated ‘genocidal ideology’ with dissent from government policy” and “continued to detain persons without charge in violation of Rwandan law.” Freedom House says “transitional justice has been largely one-sided in Rwanda,” and sees a “downward trend” in respect for civil liberties. The human rights analyst Samantha Power has written in these pages that while pursuing justice against Hutu extremists, the government has made it difficult for witnesses to testify against Tutsi soldiers indicted for war crimes by the UN tribunal in Arusha, Tanzania.2 Reporters Without Borders, which ranks countries according to their level of press freedom, places Rwanda 122nd out of 167 countries surveyed.

Three years ago, Noël Twagiramungu ran the Kigali office of a private human rights group, Ligue des Droits de l’Homme dans la Région des Grands Lacs. Today he lives near Boston. By his own account, he fled Rwanda after being told that intelligence agents were plotting to kill him in order to stop his investigations. “Kagame is governing the country as a strongman,” he told me. “His will is law. Everyone is fearful, afraid of him.” Twagiramungu asserted that the Rwandan Patriotic Front has not lived up to the promises of democracy that its leaders made while they were fighting for power in the early 1990s:

You have to put this into context and go back to Rwanda in the period before the war…. We were told, “We’re working and committed to the development of the country, but we cannot open democratic space because that will create a vacuum we cannot manage.”

…In 1990, Kagame’s guys started a war. They said they were fighting for free, democratic speech and human rights values. How can you understand that the same guys who fought for democratic freedoms now have to develop the same argument as their predecessors? “No freedom of speech or democratic space, that’s not possible in our country because what matters is security and development.” It’s really a step back.

Rwanda, as the French historian Gérard Prunier writes in his book The Rwanda Crisis: History of a Genocide,3 “is not an ‘ordinary’ African country, supposing that such a thing exists.” It is very small, with 8.8 million people packed into a land about the size of Maryland. Its climate is moderate, it has few jungles, and slave traders never penetrated into its territory. Rwanda is landlocked, and for much of its history it was isolated from the world; the first European did not arrive until 1892. It has neither great mineral wealth nor space for large-scale agriculture.

  1. 1

    See the review by Guy Lawson, “Sorrows of a Hero,” The New York Review, May 26, 2005.

  2. 2

    See Samantha Power, “Rwanda: The Two Faces of Justice,” The New York Review, January 16, 2003.

  3. 3

    See the review by James Fenton, “A Short History of Anti-Hamitism,” The New York Review, February 15, 1996.

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