Sitting on a bus full of Americans, South Africans and Europeans from various countries, I listened to the comments by fellow travellers as we made our way from Kigali International Airport through the Rwandan capital. For some, this was their first trip, and they gushed over the clean streets and how amazed they were by the country’s development. They compared Kigali with other African cities – often characterised by potholed roads and stinky rubbish heaps on sidewalks, symptoms of poor service delivery. But a pothole in Kigali is a rare sight.
I have heard these comments before. Rwanda is hailed globally as a success story and its president, Paul Kagame, is praised for his role in developing the economy. The government has invested heavily in infrastructure, and the country has done wonders in terms of improving its business environment and attracting foreign investment. Rwanda has leaped up the World Bank’s ease of doing business rankings to second place in sub-Saharan Africa, after Mauritius, and Transparency International ranks it one of the continent’s least corrupt countries.
I’m the first to admit to buying heavily into the PR. But during my recent visit I spent time chatting to Rwandans while walking around town, and their uncompromising praise of government left me with the feeling that there is something I’ve been missing.
“Is there anything you wish government would do better?” I asked a man who had struck up a conversation with me during an evening walk.
“No – the government is great,” he responded.
Call me a cynic, but there is something almost unnatural about that response. In South Africa you would struggle to find anyone who would give that answer. In fact, you wouldn’t even have to ask – you could read about our criticism of the government on social media, in letters to newspapers, and see it in frequent protests.
Now you could argue that South Africans have a lot to complain about, while Rwandans don’t. Then again, you could argue that South Africa has a healthy democracy – with the freedom of expression that comes with that – and Rwanda does not.
There is a sense of nervousness amongst the public – as a Rwandan colleague revealed one night. He scolded me for rushing across a street, saying that it made everyone around me nervous. When I asked why, he explained that there were cameras watching us and that if I ran, security might think I was being chased.
“And the next thing you know, one of these people walking next to you gets arrested.”
I didn’t see any cameras, but I did see security on just about every corner. This feeling of being watched by the government might be why nobody will say a negative word about it.
In December last year, Rwanda held a referendum on modifying the constitution to allow President Kagame to run for a third seven-year term. The proposed changes would also reduce Rwanda’s terms to five years, and allow for only two terms going forward, but this would come into effect only in 2024 – meaning that Kagame could run for a fourth and fifth term, ruling until 2034.
The proposed changes were approved by 98% of voters (98%, really?), and by the beginning of this year, Kagame had announced that he will run for re-election in 2017.
It will hardly be a nail-biter – Kagame will win by a landslide. He has not helped develop an environment with strong political opposition. Some have even suggested that he outright silences them.
One could argue, as I often have, that perhaps Rwanda is not ready for a liberal democracy, and that if the current status quo is helping develop the country (which it is) then why change it? I made this point the other night while at dinner with a friend – who told me that this kind of thinking is racist. Why should the standards for Europe and even South Africa be different to those for Rwanda? If it is not good enough for the West, why should it be good enough for this small east African country?
We all love a great success story, and Kagame has been praised for the work he has done following the Rwandan genocide the world once turned a blind eye to. He has done some amazing things. But I have become cautious of applauding too loudly.