Kagame has built a governance system with State support

Traffic on a road in Kigali, Rwanda, Sept. 16, 2022. [Xinhua]

This past week, Roads and Transport Cabinet Secretary Kipchumba Murkomen was pilloried for his undiplomatic comments during a television interview about Paul Kagame’s autocratic rule in Rwanda. A lot of the commentary focused solely on the potential diplomatic incident, and not the substance of Murkomen’s comments. Many seemed to agree that Rwanda works because it is an autocracy.

The idea that Rwanda works is popular in the wider East African region. It is also patently wrong. Rwanda works not because Paul Kagame is an autocrat, but because he has built a working system of governance backed by a strong state. The Rwandan security state works, and has done a good job of fighting insurgents at home and abroad. The administrative state works because Kagame has staked his legitimacy on order and stability, given Rwanda’s history of murderous genocides. And the economy sort of works, under the tutelage of two dominant conglomerates – one run by the ruling party (Crystal Ventures) and the other by the military (Horizon Group). The government also runs the Rwanda Investment Group, a joint venture with the private sector.

Rwanda also does a good job of managing aid money. Instead of chasing donors’ pet projects, the state sets its own priorities, then asks donors to pitch in if interested. With corruption kept at a minimum, the country has been able to beat similarly aid-dependent peers.

These achievements cannot simply be attributable to autocracy–understood as governance through the whims of one man. For comparison, one only need to be reminded that South Sudan is also an autocracy yet no one ever cites Salva Kiir as a model leader to be emulated in the region. The same goes for our own model of autocracy that preceded the return of multiparty politics in 1992.

All this to say that as we cultivate our national 'Rwanda envy', we should be clear about the real causes of its apparent successes. Perhaps then we would realise that much of what Kagame has done can be done here. We can instill discipline in the public and private sectors. We can have a state that takes its developmentalist imperative seriously. We can have a citizenry that feels obligated (even if not coercively) to invest in an inclusive national identity. And yes, we can also have firm, principled, and accountable leadership. We can have all that if we resolve to avoid the temptation of shortcuts. Kagame did not take shortcuts.

The writer is an associate professor at Georgetown University