Rwanda, 20 Years On

Caution: This is not an apology for President Kagame and his autocratic tendencies that have resulted in carnage and death in the DRC, Rwanda and elsewhere.

At a conference last year a US State Department official told a group of us that Rwanda was so polarizing that even at the Consulate in Nairobi the DRC crowd did not get along well with the Rwanda crowd.

It is not surprising why that might have been the case, or why the present analysis on the commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the 1994 genocide remains polarized.


If one just looks at the improvements made in advancing human welfare since President Paul Kagame and the RPF took power (see graph, data from the World Bank) it is hard not to arrive at the conclusion that ordinary Rwandese are unambiguously better off. The country is the least corrupt in the region and has also been consistently ranked top in the ease of doing business. But there is also the side of the Kigali government that most reasonable people love to hate: the murderous meddling in the DRC and the oppression and occasional murder of dissidents at home and abroad. Those who admire what President Kagame has done tend to emphasize the former, while his critics tend to emphasize his autocratic tendencies which have made Rwanda the least democratic country in East Africa (see below, data from Polity). Many wonder if the post-1994 achievements are sustainable enough to outlast President Kagame’s rule.

So is Mr. Kagame a state-builder or your run of the mill autocrat whose achievements will vanish as soon as he relinquishes power?

ImageIn my view, I think that Rwanda is the best success story of state-building in Africa in the last 20 years. I also think that this (state-building) should be the paramount consideration for those who care about the Rwandese people and want to help them achieve greater freedoms. The fundamental problem in states like CAR, Sierra Leone or Liberia has never been the insufficiency of democracy. Rather, it has been the problem of statelessness. The contrast between Rwanda and Burundi is instructive (see both graphs, the two are neighbors with similar ethno-political histories. Rwanda has historically had a stronger state, though. See here and here). Despite the latter being the second most democratic state in the region, it has consistently performed the worst on nearly all human development indicators. Part of the reason for this is that Burundi remains a classic papier mache state confined to Bujumbura and its environs.

May be I am too risk averse. But I am scared stiff of anything that could lead to a recurrence of the horrors of the early 1990s stretching from the Mano River region to the Horn. As a result I am always skeptical of activism that takes state capacity (including coercive capacity) for granted.

With this in mind, the fight against autocratic rule in Rwanda should not come at the expense of the state-building achievements of the last 20 years. The international community and those who genuinely care about Rwandese people should be careful not to turn Rwanda into “democratic” Burundi in the name of democracy promotion. Interventions will have to be smart enough to push President Kagame and the ruling elite in the right direction, but without gutting the foundations of political order in Rwanda.

Absent a strong state (even after Kagame), the security dilemmas that occasioned the 1994 “problem from hell” would ineluctably resurface.

Lastly, I think the level of discourse in the “Rwanda Debate” could be enhanced by the extension of the privilege of nuance to the case. For example, if all we focused on were drones killing entire families at weddings in Yemen or the horror that is the South Side of Chicago we would probably get mad enough to ask for regime change in Washington. But we don’t. Because people tolerate the “complications and nuance of American politics.” The same applies to less developed countries. Politics is complicated, everywhere. And those who approach it with priors of good-or-bad dichotomies are bound to arrive at the wrong conclusions. One need not be a Kagame apologist to realize the need for a delicate balance in attempts to effect political change in Kigali.

Before you hit the comment button, notice that this is neither an apology nor an endorsement of autocracy in Rwanda. It is a word of caution regarding the choices outsiders make to accelerate political change in Rwanda.

Tyranny is not the panacea to underdevelopment. But neither is stateless democracy.

For background reading on the 1994 genocide in Rwanda see Samantha Power’s Problems From Hell; Mahmood Mamdani’s When Victims Become Killers; and Philip Gourevitch’s We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families.

There is no way around the basics: Development will take time

I just read Chris Blattman’s response to the UK Prime Minister’s op-ed in the Journal. It reminded me of a lot of the things that I have been reading lately in preparation for my fieldwork (My dissertation will tackle the subject of legislative (under)development in Africa, with a focus on the Kenyan and Zambian legislatures).

Cameron’s sentiments in the op-ed are emblematic of the problems of development assistance. Like in all kinds of foreign intervention, developed states often try to externalize their institutions (and more generally, ways of doing things). These attempts often ignore the lived realities of the countries being assisted.

Forgetting the history of his own country (think autocratic monarchs, monopolies, limited suffrage), Cameron thinks that democracy, human rights and free markets (all great things) will magically create jobs in the developing states of the world. They don’t. In fact, they often lag the job creation process. For development assistance to be effective it must eschew these feel-good approaches to the problem of underdevelopment.

Blattman is spot on on a number of points:

  1. Unchecked leaders are bad for economic development (this is why I am so much into PARLIAMENTS!!!): Also, democracy is NOT synonymous with limited government. Heads of state like Queen Victoria or Hu Jintao or Bismarck or even Seretse Khama were in no measure democrats. However, they reined under systems with strong (sometimes extra-constitutional) checks to their power. That made a difference.
  2. Institutions rule, yes, but the right kinds of institutions: 1688 moments do not drop out of the sky. They are often preceded by decades if not centuries of civil strife, economic change and plain old learning. Institutional development takes time. Plus each society requires its own unique and appropriate mix of institutional arrangements to meet unique economic and social needs. A procrustean approach to institutional development (embodied in global capacity building) will inevitably fail. Institutional development must never be allowed to be captured by those who think that we can transform Chad simply by having them adopt Swedish institutions.
  3. Growth will require creation of jobs, i.e. industrial development: The poor countries of the world need real jobs for high school-leavers and other less educated people. The present focus on the “sexy” entrepreneural sectors – whether they are small businesses for the poor or tech hubs for the very highly educated – as the engines for growth in the developing world is misguided. I reiterate, starting a business is a very risky venture that should be left to the wealthy and the occasional dare devil. The poor in the global south need stable 9-5 jobs. Lots of them.

And lastly, where do strong institutions come from? There is no easy answer to this question. What we know is:

  1. History matters: Present countries with a long history of stateness have a better track record of building strong institutions for development. Yes, they may not always be democratic, but countries with a long history of centralized rule have strong states (and institutions) that deliver for their people (for more on this see Englebert and Gennaioli and Rainer).
  2. Democracy does not always create strong institutions: Since 1945 many have chosen to forget the fact that universal suffrage is a pretty recent phenomenon in the political history of the world. For the longest time world polities were ruled by power barons who held de facto power (as opposed to the procedural de jure power in democracies). When democracy came along after the Enlightenment the resulting structures of rule often reflected these de facto configurations of power. Over time institutions in these countries were cemented enough to allow for complete outsiders like say the current president of the United States to be elected without upsetting the balance of power (in another era he would have had to have mounted a coup). This is the challenge of the democratization in the new post-WWII states. How do you make democracy serve the interests of the people, rather that purely that of the elite? How do you use democracy to create strong institutions? Is this even possible? And if not, what other options do we have?

In which I write about elections and democratic consolidation..

I have a piece in the July issue of the Journal of Democracy emphasizing the need to focus on legislative elections just as much as presidential elections.

Reflecting the immense powers of the typical “big man” president on the Continent, many election watchers (academics, journalists and “democracy practitioners” alike) have tended to focus almost exclusively on the outcomes of presidential elections. I make the case that cleaning up the conduct of legislative elections is equally important in the quest for democratic consolidation in SSA.

More on this here.