KIGALI, Rwanda — Twenty years ago Monday, the state of Rwanda set about trying to hack itself out of existence. Starting on April 7, 1994, Hutu extremists, in a premeditated 100-day campaign, systematically butchered close to 1 million Tutsis — three-quarters of all those in the country — as well as moderate Hutus, driving countless more into exile.
Yet two decades later, Rwanda is very much alive; indeed, in many respects, it's thriving. But it remains a confounding place.
Visit the country today and you find a remarkably peaceful and well-ordered land. Hutus and Tutsis — including former genocidaires and the families of their victims — live side by side in villages throughout the countryside. Personal crime is virtually unheard of, as is trash; plastic bags were banned in 2006. Under the savvy, technocratic leadership of President Paul Kagame, who has led the tiny, landlocked country since toppling the genocidal Hutu regime, Rwanda's economy has exploded: GDP has shot up at an average rate of 8% over the last five years (although it started from a low base).
Thanks in large part to smart governance, more than 1 million Rwandans have been lifted out of poverty since 2006. Child mortality has dropped 70%, and malaria-related deaths have plummeted more than 85% since 2005, though it helps that healthcare is universal.
Last year, the World Bank ranked Rwanda as the second-best place in Africa to do business. Transparency International counts it the second least-corrupt nation on the continent, and last week the consulting firm A.T. Kearney ranked it as the most attractive African market in its first African Retail Development Index. Rwanda's first international bond issue, last April, did remarkably well. Meanwhile, 92% of children attend primary school, and Rwanda's parliament has a higher share of women — 64% — than any other legislature in the world.
Yet this narrative of dramatic progress sits alongside another, darker story. In recent years, the charge sheet against Kagame has become alarmingly long and increasingly difficult to ignore. Though he still has many fans at home and abroad, including Tony Blair, Bill Clinton, Bill Gates and Clare Short (Britain's former minister for international development, who once called him "such a sweetie"), dissent is growing. Rwandan journalists complain of frequent harassment, and last year Kigali's treatment of the media earned the country a "not free" ranking from Freedom House.
Meanwhile, Kagame has banned some political parties, won his last two elections by eyebrow-raising margins (more than 90% in both 2003 and 2010) and refuses to commit to stepping down when his second term ends in 2017, though the constitution requires it.
Talking about ethnicity in Rwanda has been banned, arguably to prevent divisions and promote a post-racial society ("We are all Rwandans now," as the saying goes). But many Rwandans complain that the best government jobs and opportunities go overwhelmingly to Tutsis, who make up only about 14% of the population. Although Kagame's Cabinet is mixed, for example, most of the top ministries are run by Tutsis. Worse, some of the president's most vocal opponents have started turning up dead under mysterious circumstances.
Even the U.S., Kagame's most stalwart ally, finally seems to be losing patience. After years of unflinching support, in December 2012 President Obama intervened and personally told Kagame to stop meddling in neighboring Congo's seemingly endless civil war.
Such carping drives Kagame's many supporters, and the president himself, crazy. As he told me in a recent interview, he resents what he sees as foreigners' demands that the country conform to their own image, "without considering Rwanda's context."
"Who are they to define us?" he asks.
Kagame's frustration is easy to understand. For one thing, Rwanda in 1994 was so devastated, fragile and bitterly divided that an immediate turn to multi-party democracy could have tipped it back into chaos.
For another, despite the criticisms, Kagame's accomplishments remain real, and they are vast. A man who grew up in Tutsi refugee camps across the border in Uganda has shown uncommon forbearance to many of his former persecutors; tens of thousands of Hutu genocidaires have been pardoned as part of the country's reconciliation process. The president is obsessively hardworking and generally thought to be uncorrupt. And he has created a fiercely efficient and effective government, all in the face of mind-boggling odds.
To add further insult, many of the foreign capitals that criticize Kagame today were either complicit or indifferent during the bloodletting 20 years ago. "Some members of the international community were involved with [the genocide] and the failure to stop it," he told me. "And they have failed to help manage the aftermath."
That criticism may be true, though Rwanda has been given billions in foreign aid dollars over the years. But in a key sense, it misses the point. If this consummate technocrat is ever to fully realize his goals for Rwanda, he may find himself forced to liberalize its politics, not because anyone tells him he has to but because economic logic demands it.
After all, Kagame has promised that Rwanda will be a middle-income country by 2020, a hugely ambitious goal for a nation whose per-capita GDP was just $644 in 2012. Kagame likes to list Singapore, the world's poster child for authoritarian capitalism, as his model. But another nation Kagame occasionally cites — South Korea — may prove more relevant to Rwanda's future.
Like Rwanda, South Korea started at the bottom. In the mid-1950s, it too was war-torn and poorer than much of sub-Saharan Africa (it was even poorer than communist North Korea). And like Rwanda, it is geographically isolated and has few natural resources. But over the last half a century, South Korea's economy has grown faster for longer than almost any other nation in history. And while its initial boom did begin under a dictatorship, the country only managed to reach and sustain its current, high level of development thanks to the advent of real democracy in 1987. Without its open, freewheeling political system, South Korea would never have been able to climb the upper rungs of the ladder and achieve its enviable wealth.
That's because command or commodity-based economies featuring highly personalized leadership can get only so far before they hit their limits. After all, even the wisest of wise men has his blind spots and needs a fully free media to point them out. To really bloom in today's global markets, moreover, states — especially resource-poor ones — must build a knowledge economy. That requires relentless innovation, which in turn requires creativity, unrestricted access to information and the ability to speak one's mind. All of those things are very hard to accomplish in a top-down political system that limits open debate.
Kagame is smart enough to know this; indeed, he suggested as much in our conversation. The most interesting question now, and the key to whether Rwanda ever reaches its great potential, is whether he also has the character and wisdom to act on that knowledge and to allow his nation the liberty that development demands.