Reinventing Rwanda

Stephen Kinzer, a former foreign correspondent for the New York Times, is the author, most recently, of "A Thousand Hills: Rwanda's Rebirth and the Man Who Dreamed It."

In the dozens of poor countries I’ve covered as a foreign correspondent, development specialists -- people who run projects aimed at pulling nations out of poverty -- have generally worked hand in hand with human rights advocates. That makes sense because these two groups are natural allies. Both instinctively support governments that promote freedom and prosperity and oppose corrupt and repressive ones.

Recently, though, I’ve been spending time in a country where these two groups are on opposite sides: Rwanda. No other country’s government is so highly praised by development specialists but also so roundly condemned by human rights advocates. In fact, Rwanda’s spectacular rebirth since the shocking genocide of 1994 has reignited an old debate about the very nature of human rights -- and about whether the West’s obsession with this concept can undermine innovative solutions to problems that hold entire nations in misery.

Over the last few years, Rwanda has emerged as the most exciting place on Earth for people whose dream is to end global poverty. Development specialists are flooding in, drawn by the dazzlingly original, entrepreneur-driven program that President Paul Kagame is promoting. One aid administrator told me that Rwanda is “the only country on the planet that has a chance of going from absolute poverty to middle income in the space of a generation.” A Harvard Business School report last year found that economic conditions are steadily improving and that the country is “corruption free,” “stable with social progress” and possibly on its way to becoming the “Switzerland of Africa.”


Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa calls Rwanda “a miracle unfolding before our very eyes.” All over Africa and beyond, experts are beginning to hope that this country, so devastated by the genocide 14 years ago in which more than 800,000 people were killed in 100 days, will give the world a new model for fighting poverty.

During one of my interviews with Kagame, I asked him why, despite decades of study and the expenditure of hundreds of billions of dollars in aid, no one has come up with a formula for ending poverty in Africa. He rejected the premise of my question. “Everyone knows how to develop Africa,” he said. “The problem is that no one does it.”

Kagame’s formula, modeled after those that brought rapid development to East Asian countries, is simple and straightforward. First and above all, he believes in security; under his rule, Rwanda has become the safest country in Africa, a place where even in the capital people walk alone after dark carrying cash, cellphones and other valuables.

Then comes honest governance; no African government has ever waged the kind of campaign against bribery and influence-peddling that Kagame is leading in Rwanda. Add education, population control, first-class infrastructure, gender equality, good healthcare and a strong sense of private initiative, Kagame believes, and the result is prosperity.

But although diplomats, economists and development experts are full of praise for Kagame and his government -- and many Rwandans share their enthusiasm -- American and European human rights advocates are less impressed. They point out that Kagame won his last election with 95% of the vote and that there is no prospect of anyone defeating him in 2010, when he is expected to be reelected to a second (and, by law, final) seven-year term. The European Union judged the last election “not entirely fair,” and the U.S. State Department called it “seriously marred.”

Human rights advocates also reject Kagame’s view that Rwandans must view themselves only as Rwandans and stop using the words “Hutu” and “Tutsi.” He allows people to complain, for example, that the country is ruled by a small clique, but not that it is ruled by a small clique of Tutsi. A reporter may assert that Rwandans are miserable, but not that Hutu are miserable. Last year, a journalist was sentenced to a year in prison for writing that “those who killed Hutu are free” because national leaders “think the Hutu who perished are not human beings.”


How does Kagame explain such prosecutions, which seem to contradict Western notions of free speech and an unfettered press? He says they are necessary because Rwanda faces another challenge, a psycho-spiritual one that may be even more daunting than making a poor country rich. Its population remains deeply divided as a result of factors that led to the 1994 genocide. Kagame considers the limitation on speech essential to prevent another explosion of mass murder. His critics call it an unjust, self-serving and dangerous restriction on free speech.

Another great debate between Kagame and his critics is over the question of who should be punished for horrific crimes of the 1990s. All agree that those who carried out the genocide must be held accountable. But what about soldiers who fought under Kagame’s command, first in the insurgent Rwandan Patriotic Front and then, after victory, in Rwanda’s national army? The front may well have committed war crimes during its fight for power. Later in the 1990s, Rwandan troops suppressed a counterinsurgency waged by fighters loyal to the deposed genocidal regime. Many innocent people were killed.

The government’s position is that these two sets of crimes -- the genocide and the brutal wars waged afterward -- were totally different and deserve different responses. That is why, as genocidaires are being judged and punished, there is no parallel set of trials for those who fought alongside Kagame. He dismisses calls for such trials as politically motivated efforts to place his liberation army on the same moral plane as mass murderers and thereby weaken his government’s moral authority.

Some human rights advocates, though, assert that because those being punished for genocidal crimes are Hutu, and most of Kagame’s commanders were Tutsi, treating them so differently could stoke resentment and even fuel a future conflict.

There are genuine human rights concerns in Rwanda. A detailed report by a monitoring group sponsored by the African Union, for example, praised the country for its “dramatic recovery” but also found that judicial independence is “compromised” and urged “an opening up of political space for competition of ideas and power.” Kagame dismissed the report as “simplistic” and based on “generic and oversimplified modes of analysis.” When Human Rights Watch listed 20 Rwandans who allegedly died in police custody, he told reporters that anyone making such charges had “probably consumed drugs.”

These dismissive responses reflect, among other things, the smoldering contempt that Kagame and his comrades feel for the “international community.” Their experience -- growing up as exiles without anyone lifting a finger to help them return home, and then watching the world (and particularly the United Nations) refuse to step in to stop the 1994 genocide -- has given them a deep belief in self-reliance and boundless scorn for outside critics. It’s easy for human rights activists to carp, they say, but those activists do not realize that Rwanda remains an explosive place where a single misstep could set off a tragedy of biblical proportions.


“Ours is not an ordinary situation,” Kagame told me. “It has built into me some sort of contempt for people who don’t see the situation as it actually is, who don’t see the depth and breadth of what we are facing. ... For me, human rights is about everything. Even languishing in poverty as a result of colonization and other situations of the past violated human rights. If you solve that, you resolve the human rights issue.”

During the pre-Kagame era, Rwanda experimented with competitive politics only once, in 1993-94. That experiment culminated in genocide. It is not surprising, therefore, that most Rwandans today are more eager for security, food, jobs and medicine than for a political system that would guarantee unfettered freedom and fully competitive elections. Only that kind of system, however, meets the one-size-fits-all standard of some human rights groups.

The most prominent clergyman in Rwanda, Bishop John Rucyahana, complained to me that Western human rights groups are “caught in the colonial mentality.” If a government raises a miserably poor population toward prosperity, he asked, isn’t that the greatest service it can provide to the cause of human rights? Isn’t that more important than allowing politicians or journalists the freedom to stir up disunity between Hutus and Tutsis?

Not necessarily, say some outsiders.

Today, this debate over the true definition of human rights -- and the right of people around the world to define it for themselves -- is sharper in Rwanda than anywhere else.