Rwanda’s transition has been less than ordinary. It was already one of the countries with the lowest level of development in the 1980s and in 1994 the Genocide against Tutsi devastated the country beyond recognition in just one hundred days. The country has seen peace, security, and rapid economic development for over two decades under President Kagame who led the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) troops to halt the genocide and liberate the country. Rwanda was completely devastated with still 60% of the population living under the poverty line by 2003.1 In addition to the severe poverty, Rwanda’s primarily agrarian economy fluctuates with market forces, adverse weather conditions, or new export difficulties. Rwandans elected President Kagame in 2000 and many problems plagued the country in the early days of his presidency. Agricultural productivity remained low and land distribution unequal, trade barriers limited exports, a lack of institutional capacity challenged progress, poor human resource development needed to be addressed, public debt was growing fast, above.
Beyond the human cost for healing and overcoming the aftermath of the 1994 Genocide against Tutsi, Rwandans faced daily reminders its consequences in their daily lives. At the time, 90% of the workforce were in agriculture but largely on a subsistence level to feed themselves rather than able to grow cash crops to improve development.2 Rwandan is one of the smallest countries on the African continent, often up to nine Rwandan farmers shared one hectare of land. The land distributed had often lost its arability due to previously unsustainable farming practices which left the soil in poor condition and contributed to poor crop yields and malnutrition. In order to ship its exports, Rwanda, landlocked, faced issues of high transportation fees, poor roads, no connection to a railway, and obviously no direct access to a port of its own. Coffee and tea were the primary exports but due to the degraded environment, the country needed to explore different avenues to find other ways to fuel economic growth.3 Following the three year civil war from Oct 1st, 1990 to August 4th,1993 and the Genocide against Tutsi, governance suffered from the loss of people from the country, in addition its reliance on foreign assistance challenged the long term vision needed for economic stability. People in the government lacked skills and proper training, farmers in agriculture and animal husbandry also required further training before they could invest in the expansion of secondary and tertiary sectors. The 65% illiteracy rate of people aged 15 and up certainly did not help the situation.4 In 2000, Rwanda’s public debt reached $1.5 billion and the GDP at the time was $1.3 billion with 75% of the debt was held by the World Bank and other lenders. Debt relief became urgent as was finding options to increase exports.5 Lastly and all encompassing all these issues connected to the conflict and aftermath of the Genocide against Tutsi that took a toll on Rwanda’s population, economy, institutions, and infrastructure.6
The government has done a stellar job of transforming the country into what it is today. But it also comes down to the support from the people of Rwanda who helped build a new nation from the memories of their loved ones who were killed. After the 1994 Genocide against Tutsi, Rwanda seemed destined to be a failed state. Yet today Rwanda is often seen as a role model for other African countries. Billionaire Jack Ma, co-founder of Alibaba said, “… if every country in Africa was like Rwanda, how powerful would Africa be.” Rwanda became a tourist destination, and also a communication and transportation hub. The government has investing heavily in its capital Kigali by building a 300 million-dollar convention center to attract foreign businesses.7 These investment choices for the city have rewarded Rwanda who is now recognized as the only low income country in the list of World Bank’s country for ease of doing business index, with a ranking of 29th.8 Rwanda has since expanded its economy, although it still relies on coffee and tea.
Since 1994, the workforce in agriculture dropped from 90% to 60% while increasing the GDP per capita of farmers to $700 from a bit over $100 showing that the government has taken strides to expand other economic sectors.9 From 2003 to 2015 the annual economic-growth has increased by 7-8 percent. Rwanda has overachieved when in comparison to other African countries regarding the UN Millennium Development Goals and reached rank 46 on the World Bank’s Doing Business index.10 This makes Rwanda increasingly lucrative for companies to create a hub in Africa. The government has also focused on improving services like healthcare and cheaper energy. In 2018, the government announced that 90 percent of Rwandans are under its universal health care. This is significant because many countries in Africa suffer from high rates of child and maternal mortality.11 The steps Rwanda’s government is taking to further prosperity in the country are ones that will hopefully set Rwanda on the path to transition and graduate from the UN list of Least Developed Countries.
Since Kagame came into office, the presidential elections have come under scrutiny. In 2003, Kagame had won the vote with 95 percent and in the 2010 elections where he won by 93 percent. The government’s interference with the voting was so effective that they had to reduce the percentage of votes that Kagame received and gave them to his “competition”.12 In Rwanda it President Paul Kagame yields enormous power, in an a speech in 2019, he stated, “betrayal has consequences. Anyone who betrays our cause or wishes to harm our people will fall a victim. What remains to be seen is how you fall victim. There are many ways.”13 For someone like President Paul Kagame who had spent most of his life surrounded by insecurity and political and ethnic violence, it is difficult to suddenly leave behind reliance on the military and rely solely on political approaches. Some allege that Kagame calls all the shots, and to stay in power shuns, imprisons, or even order the assassinations of political opponents who go against him. General Kayumba Nyamwasa , Col. Patrick Karegeya, Dr. Theogene Rudasingwa, and Gerald Gahima all previously held powerful positions in the RPF, and banded together in 2010 to write a briefing about Rwanda. The four claim that, “State institutions, especially law enforcement agencies, the judiciary and security services, serve to protect the RPF’s, and ultimately Kagame’s power monopoly instead of protecting the fundamental human rights of citizens.”14 They comment further on their former party by saying that the RPF was intended to be democratic, inclusive, and principled, however that is no longer the case. Furthermore, they boldly claim that, “the party, like the rest of the country, is engulfed by fear, held hostage to President Kagame’s arbitrary and repressive rule.”15 When interviewed in Davos in January 2014, President Kagame refuted these allegations.16 The most recent report on Rwanda Events in 2020, published by Human Rights Watch in 2021 raises serious questions about political space and freedom of expression for political opponents of the regime, documents issues with the 2017 law that established the National Rehabilitation Service allow the detention for up to two months of anyone exhibiting “deviant behaviors”, prompting HRW to call for the immediate halt to arbitrary detention of children in transit centers.17
The changes to the constitution and legislature in 2003 made political opposition near impossible.18 Victoire Ingabire was arrested when she ran for president in 2010, and was charged with “minimizing the genocide” and “divisionism” which landed her a 15 year sentence and served 8 until her early release. Her early release does not negate the very problematic way her case was handled. In an interview with PBS, David Himbara, the President’s former aid and economic advisor stated that Paul Kagame is “a one-man government. He’s in charge of the executive, the judiciary, and the legislative branch.”19
During the past two decades the government has maintained the security inside of the country and prevented conflicts in neighboring countries from spilling out in to Rwanda and the country has enjoyed substantial improvements in all sectors, yet some question at what cost. In the Congressional Research Service’s briefing of Rwanda, Alexis Arieff highlighted the problems with the country’s civil liberties.
The State Department’s 2019 (latest) human rights report on Rwanda cited “unlawful or arbitrary killings,” “forced disappearances,” torture, and “arbitrary detention” by state security forces, along with “political prisoners” and serious constraints on privacy, free expression, freedom of assembly and association, and political participation. The report stated that “the government continued to monitor homes, movements, telephone calls, email, and personal and institutional communications” adding that “informants continued to work within international and local [nongovernmental organizations], religious organizations, media, and other social institutions.”20
As a result of the limited civil liberties, the government has a tight control over government owned media. The non-profit organization Freedom House states that, “Rwandan media are officially censored and constrained by fear of reprisals. Journalists interviewed admitted that they censor their own writing and that the authorities have made it clear that certain topics cannot be discussed.”21 It is arguable that these measures are necessary to maintain public unity and the subversion of any and all criticism of the government is needed to keep the country moving forward. In order to do that, the government laid out a plan in 2000 called Rwanda Vision 2020.
The Vision 2020 plan set the country on a path to achieve an ambitious number of short, medium, and long term goals to improve the country. Early on, Rwanda noticed a problem with gender equality and in 2000 the government set to have 40% of women in decision making positions.22 By 2019, they had overachieved by 20% bringing the total percentage of female lawmakers to 60% and half of the supreme court justices are women as well. This staggering figure of 60% of women in parliament is the highest percentage in the world and ranks Rwanda sixth on the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index which is the highest in Africa.23 Education is also an area that Rwanda has much improved on; in ten years Rwanda moved up significantly on the UN Education Index from 395 to 450. From 2009 to 2011, Rwanda built 8,600 classrooms and in 2003, President Kagame offered free elementary education and extended free education to grade 12 in 2012. A problem of staff teacher positions still remains; in 2019, there were 5,000 teaching vacancies and a number of schools were shut down and condensed.24 However, compared to the country two decades ago, what the government has done regarding education is night and day. Rwanda chose to invest in its own citizens and its achievements in education demonstrate this commitment.
One goal that failed and is possibly the most important one was achieving the economic figures projected by the Vision 2020 plan. The goal for Rwanda was to become a medium income country but it missed the mark and this aspiration was pushed back to 2035. Rwanda is still very dependent on foreign aid to keep the country afloat. According to the BTI Project, operated by the German foundation Bertelsmann-Stiftung, foreign aid makes up 13% of Rwanda’s GDP and 20% of the government budget. If this aid were reduced, the economy could collapse. This was made very evident in 2012/13 when aid was suspended temporarily due to the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo which saw the GDP’s growth fall by 50%. The various sectors like manufacturing and construction each contribute to 6% of the GDP and mining, electricity, and water/waste each only contribute to 2%. In order to reach the goal of a middle-income economy, it needs to be expanded further and create more jobs in sectors that do not yet contribute as much to the GDP. BTI notes that the goal can be met with at least 250,000 jobs created annually, but in 2018 there were two million people unemployed coupled with high birth rates and every year there are 250,000 additional people entering the workforce.25 The National Institute of Statistics of Rwanda reported that also during 2018-19, there were only 120,978 jobs created outside of agriculture which shows how much more work the government needs to do to reach its economic goals.26
In 2012, President Kagame stated “people say that I should stay because there is no one to replace me. But if in all these years I have been unable to mentor a successor or successors that should be the reason I should not continue as president. It means that I have not created capacity for a post-me Rwanda. I see this as a failure.”27 The future of Rwanda is worrisome as to how the country will operate after Paul Kagame leaves office (if or when he does). In 2015, there was a referendum to the constitution allowing President Kagame to run for a third term. In the last presidential election happened in 2017. He won the election, with a staggering 98.79% percentage of the vote, even higher than in any previous elections.28 Support reaching unanimity raises legitimate questions about the suspiciously high outcome. Following his earlier statement, the next president of Rwanda will likely be someone that Paul Kagame endorses and would follow how the country is being run. However, that may be many years away because Kagame’s advisor Jean-Paul Kimonyo said, “here in Rwanda, a possible extension of our President’s term of office is currently not an issue… we want more prosperity and we need strong leadership for this. And Rwandans are currently very satisfied with their leadership.” He goes on to say that the young Rwandans like him because he gets things done and gained admiration of other Africans because they also want a leader who has that same quality and a record of fighting against corruption.29 But the problem is that many of the people who vote for President Kagame view him as the man who turned Rwanda into a ‘success story’. However, this success does not include leadership that can provide a comfortable transition with a new president. If that is the case and Rwanda continues to rely on foreign aid and lags behind in terms of job creation, the citizens may not back the new leader. Worse case scenario, high unemployment as high as in the early 1990s could make regress and return to violence. Political opposition may also attempt to rise up if or when Paul Kagame leaves office even if the dangers of being jailed or disappeared remain. Throughout the years there have been attempts from politicians to run for president like Victoire Ingabire and under a new administration would the power remain to silence such opposition and would they be able to get away with it? There are many uncertainties surrounding the country and it depends on what President Kagame is going to do leading up to the next presidential elections in 2024 and how the country responds to it.