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.

11 thoughts on “Rwanda, 20 Years On

  1. This piece obviously lacks intellectual integrity. What do you know of he pre-genocide state in Rwanda? Wasn’t it developmental and often praised by WB for that? Why was it incapable of stopping the civil war that led to the genocide? Also, the comparisons you make between Burundi and Rwanda are very wanting. Kagame inherited an already developmental state. Burundi has been through a continuation of civil wars since independence. Second, Rwanda has benefited from aid (and Congo’s loot) more than Burundi has. In the end, Rwanda may be praised for being an efficient user of aid, but that is insufficient ground to endorse a murderous regime. What happens when the aid runs dry? When opposition picks up arms?


  2. You raise good points, Brian. But notice that I am not endorsing the Rwandese dictatorship. What I am saying is that we should be careful to manage the transition well, or else we will find ourselves in a pre-1994 situation all over again. Of course this is not to trivialize the suffering and death that the RPF has brought to dissidents in Rwanda.


  3. What I personally can’t gainsay is the fact that Rwanda is doing generally well in many areas compared to the countries around it and the incumbent president has the the set of qualities that the country needed to achieve that especially after what the country went through. The big question though is whether the system is self sustained to see Rwanda on the rise regardless of who will be in power.


  4. Tremendous article, great points, I couldn’t agree more with your assessment.

    Those in the west have a hard time evaluating circumstances in which there is an absent of state power because it is such a foreign concept, and so outside western experience over the last several hundred years. I think that explains why this insightful post with very solid conclusions produced such vitriolic comments:

    Your point is summed up by Teddy Roosevelt , who said, “Order without liberty and liberty without order are equally destructive.”


  5. “Of course this is not to trivialize the suffering and death that the RPF has brought to dissidents in Rwanda.” and Eastern Congo


  6. Interesting reflections. However, I think your analysis could benefit from a more historical understanding of the Rwandan state as well as insight in the nature of the state-society relationship in contemporary Rwanda. Indeed, there is state reach in the Rwandan case. The state gets things done. The danger for the Rwandan case is, however: state overreach – namely when the state hurts or even kills its own people. The latter is evident given Rwanda’s history (genocide was a state-driven project), the former is not absent in contemporay Rwanda in the name of ‘development’ and ‘progress’. ‘State fragility’ in the Rwandan case lies in state overreach, not in the absence of the state and the failure to provide security and services. I have recently published an article on this issue, based on extensive research in the country. You might find it interesting:


  7. Pingback: The mad, mad debate over Rwanda — 20 years after the genocide – Christian Science Monitor | Everyday News Update

  8. Dear Ken,

    As always, I enjoy reading your posts. I particularly enjoyed this one.

    I guess for me the question that remains is are there any examples of state building with democracy?

    Would be good to have coffee when you are next in Nairobi. Do you have any plans to come down?

    Best Radha

    Dr. Radha Upadhyaya Institute for Development Studies University of Nairobi-Kenya + 254 733 632046 (KE)


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  10. Pingback: Angus Deaton and Rwanda’s Health Minister, Agnes Binagwaho, square off « An Africanist Perspective

  11. Pingback: Rwanda's Health Minister Dr.Agnes Binagwaho responds to Angus ... - News4Security

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