Love him or hate him, Kagame could be Africa’s Lee Kuan Yew

Rwanda’s Paul Kagame, like Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew, fits the bill. [Photo, Standard]

I don’t give a flying fig about so-called benevolent dictators, although my dear friend Donald Kipkorir, the estimable lawyer, seems to love them.

That’s because a dictator is a dictator – as in a ruler who’s accountable to no one else, or to any institution. In fact, the “benevolent” dictator is often amoral, or immoral, and usually Machiavellian. He’s a vain character possessed by an irredeemably obsessive, narcissistic messianic self.

But benevolent dictators get things done. Even if they have to break life and limb to do so. Rwanda’s Paul Kagame, like Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew, fits the bill. 

Lee Kuan Yew as he was known, ruled Singapore for three decades. When he took power at the dawn of independence, Singapore was little more than a third world town-slum-state.  Lee, the Cambridge-educated lawyer, turned Singapore, the tiny sliver of land, into one of the world’s most prosperous states. 

The city-state with Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea constitute what are known as the Asian Tigers. With only a population of seven million, Singapore is the second largest investor in India. In 1960, Singapore’s per capita income was $3,400. Today, it’s $57,000, among the top 10 in the world. Singapore is a centre of technology, manufacturing and finance.  How did it get there?

Lee engineered a highly controlled society. He even tried to create a “master race” by incentivising marriages between couples with graduate degrees. Dissent was completely outlawed. 

While at Harvard, I knew a former Singaporean AG who had fallen afoul of Mr Lee and had been exiled for daring to criticise the “dear leader.”  Stiff penalties – levied without pity – were imposed on simple things like spitting in the street, or dropping a cigarette butt. 

Singapore has the world’s strictest penalties for drug offenses. The people seem to have traded liberty for economic prosperity. Singapore isn’t a political democracy in the ordinary meaning of the term. The political system is not open – it’s a “guided” democracy.

Rwanda, like Singapore, isn’t endowed with many natural resources. In fact, the density of its population has been one of the causes of the spasms of violence, many genocidal, the country has seen. 

Kagame took over an economic basket case after the horrific 1994 genocide in which close to a million people, mostly Tutsi, were massacred. Rarely has there been such an intense genocide in human history. So, Kagame and his forces must be credited with ending the holocaust. 

But he inherited an incendiary ethnic triad of the majority Hutu, the minority Tutsi, and the marginal Twa. Kagame’s regime hasn’t permitted anything that can be called a democracy. He’s fully in charge.

Kagame has stifled all basic freedoms. Those who want to live in peace cannot dissent.  He’s fallen out with his most trusted comrades with whom he took power. He’s been accused of hunting them down abroad and killing them. 

His exiled opponents, including former generals and chiefs of intelligence, live in fear of assassination. Kagame is an adept propagandist. He manipulated the genocide narrative to justify repressive rule. 

Recently, he forced a third term. It’s clear he’s following the Lee Kuan Yew script. I doubt he will ever truly leave power. He believes there’s no Rwanda without him. He’s paranoid. That’s why he went berserk and tormented Diane Shima Rwigara, a young female challenger. 

But like Lee, Mr Kagame has been credited with stamping out corruption, creating much needed infrastructure, reviving the economy, and attracting massive foreign direct investment. 

In Africa, only Ethiopia’s economy grew faster than Rwanda’s in 2018. It clocked at 7.1 per cent behind Ethiopia’s 7.8 per cent and ahead of Tanzania’s 6.7 per cent. Kenya grew at six per cent. 

Visitors to Rwanda, a darling of the Bretton Woods institutions, report many “shiny objects” like new apartment complexes, flawless roads and five star hotels. Farmers are said to be very productive. There’s no litter in the streets, the sort you see everywhere in Nairobi.  Will Rwanda leapfrog all her East African neighbours and become a first world country like Singapore? 

Will Kagame turn Rwanda from a third world backwater into a first world state? 

Political democracy isn’t necessary for economic growth. The US became the most hegemonic global superpower after 1945 as an apartheid state. South Africa, the true home of apartheid, had Africa’s most dominant economy under apartheid white minority regimes. 

China became the second most powerful economy without learning how to spell the word democracy. The jury is out on Mr Kagame. Importantly, will he vanquish the demon of genocide?


-The writer is SUNY Distinguished Professor at SUNY Buffalo Law School and Chair of KHRC.  @makaumutua.