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The price to pay for Rwanda’s development miracle

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David Himbara, Kagame’s former adviser, says the president is offering the international community, and a large part of Rwandan society, a ‘Faustian bargain’: ‘Overlook my brutal behaviour, and I will offer you a model for economic growth in an African nation.’

But some researchers and commentators, including Himbara, are questioning the figures of Rwanda’s GDP growth and poverty reduction since the end of the genocide in 1994, saying they are based on false calculations. Statistics are particularly important as Rwanda remains something of a ‘donor darling’ 23 years after the 1994 genocide.

Up to 40% of Rwanda’s budget is made up of foreign aid – according to Himbara’s figures the highest level of donor dependency per capita in East Africa. Rwanda’s trade deficit is growing and annual per capita income is also lower than Kenya and Tanzania, he says.

Aymar Nyenyezi Bisoka, a post-doctoral fellow at the Louvain School of Political and Social Sciences who has done research in Rwanda’s rural areas, says even if some of the official figures add up, there are many questions about the quality of government assessments and whether people are free to respond truthfully.

Even when it comes to political freedoms in Rwanda, some organisations prefer to buy in to the official line. A study by the Wits School of Governance in South Africa and the Africa Regional Office of Open Society Foundations says ‘democratic culture’ in Rwanda is seen to be greater than in South Africa, Ghana, Nigeria, Zambia and Ethiopia. ‘Democratic culture’ pertains to ‘the necessary legislative, social and policy frameworks to support and protect multi-party democracy, open debate and peace’.

But researchers say civil society organisations in Rwanda – who are tightly controlled by the state – were hesitant to participate in the study. And when they did, respondents to the Wits survey gave the Rwandan government full marks on almost every score.

Donors and international organisations could argue that good statistics are hard to come by in many parts of Africa. They could claim that at least in Rwanda there’s some push by the government to ensure economic growth, rather than merely being a predator state that rules solely through corruption and violence, with no effort to uplift the poor.

Kagame clearly has nothing to fear from most observers and donors, especially within Africa. At the last summit in Addis Ababa he was elected chairperson of the AU for 2018 – no one even considered the possibility that he would no longer be Rwanda’s president.

According to the constitutional amendment in Rwanda, Kagame may be able to stand for president again in 2024 and then serve another two five-year terms.

To stay in power, he will have to continue surrounding himself with star-studded supporters and prevent any serious dissent from getting in his way. Ironically, with more connected Africans seeking greater freedom of expression, this might become more difficult to pull off as time goes by.


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