1 July 2009

Rwanda: On Independence Day, Not Quite Free?

Photo: Mark Garten/UN
A Rwandan genocide survivor lights a memorial candle.

guest column

As Rwanda celebrates its independence on Wednesday, it stands as one of those African countries which appears on the face of it to be working well, despite pursuing a homegrown style of democracy which has attracted international criticism for being authoritarian.

In recent years,  the country has  boasted economic growth rates as high as 9.9 percent, an inflation rate of 3.2 percent and currency devaluation of 6.5 percent (at least before the current global economic slump), which is quite an impressive set of economic indicators.

While its development challenges remain formidable, Rwanda has made remarkable progress in lowering inequalities between men and women, increasing universal access to health services and improving the quality of education. The government has also made efforts to bring hundreds of perpetrators of the 1994 genocide to book in its gacaca courts.

So remarkable are its achievements that Western donors are often hesitant to question what some view as problematic deficiencies in Rwanda's human rights and democracy record.

Rwanda's critics are quick to point to its leader – President Paul Kagame, who was described in the New Yorker recently as an unapologetic authoritarian – as the main reason to be concerned about democracy in Rwanda, given his heavy-handed governing style.

Furthermore, his government's respect for civil liberties is widely questioned by a growing number of watchdogs, such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.

Kagame's administration has also developed a reputation for having as little respect for press freedom as Swaziland, Chad and Sudan, and has invited condemnation for its opposition to the International Criminal Court by leading the African Union's opposition to the arrest warrant for Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir for war crimes and genocide.

Nonetheless, Rwanda's status as an  African success story is largely unquestioned in the West.

For those who view western democracy as an unnatural fit and an unwanted burden for Africa, Rwanda is a refreshing example of a functional African solution to an African problem.

But is the Rwandan success story sustainable? Some in Rwanda would reply an emphatic "yes".

In Singapore a heavy-handed state has not hampered development or improvement to the quality of life of its people. To the contrary, Singapore's is a prosperous economy that has achieved success without sticking to the rules of what the West considers necessary for democracy. Similarly, the rise of China, despite its questionable record on human rights and democracy, suggests that Rwanda could succeed in the long term.

Nonetheless, unlike China and Singapore, not only could Rwanda afford to open up more democratic space; a freer political environment could consolidate the gains that the country has made since the 1994 genocide.

At the very least, a freer press would help create a more informed, politically and socially-conscious citizenry, able to make a meaningful contribution to the country's reconstruction. In South Africa, which recently inaugurated its fourth president since the advent of democracy, it can be argued that a free press is one of the secrets of the country's success.

Most Rwandan civil society groups are invisible or lack the skills and capacity to engage the authorities constructively. But, as South Africa has also shown, a professional civil society sector is crucial to effective democracy and healthy development.

While few question the progress Rwanda has made in the past 15 years, one of the key challenges on this Independence Day is to transform the country into a freer, more open democracy. Surely, given the incumbent government's record of competence to date, this is not too tall an order?

George Katito is a researcher on the Governance and African Peer Review Mechanism Programme at the South African Institute of International Affairs  in Johannesburg.

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