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Rwanda: the Singapore of Africa or an authoritarian mirage?

Notorious for the bloody genocide in 1994 that shocked the international community, Rwanda is now recovering from this atrocious event — and it seems successful at it. In 2017, Paul Kagame, president of Rwanda and former military leader, claimed the country is aspiring to be the Singapore of Africa. Singapore is internationally recognized for jumping from the third world to the first world countries echelon in the matter of a lifetime, which makes it an inspiration for many developing economies. Rwanda still has a way to go to achieve the results of the Asian city-state, yet it has already performed significant developments in economic growth, literacy rates, life expectancy, healthcare and gender representation, almost 30 years after one of the bloodiest genocides in the history of humanity. How and at what cost did Rwanda earn the status of Africa’s Singapore?

Carried out with meticulous organization, the Rwandan genocide took the lives of approximately 500.000 to 1 million ethnic Tutsis as a result of long-going tension between Tutsis and Hutus — the two main ethnic groups of Rwanda. Human resources were depleted — the country lost 40% of its population, who were either killed or fled in fear of revenge or in search of a better life. The genocide left a huge scar in Rwandan history, putting the country in a severe state of poverty, hunger, and a health crisis. Paul Kagame took charge of the country in the post-genocide period and hasn’t left office since.

Rwanda has witnessed exponential improvements in development under Kagame’s rule. In the post-genocide period, only 1% of the population had access to energy resources, compared to almost half of the population by today. The country is leading global rankings in economic development, maintaining 8% of growth for almost a decade now, which is well above the average for Sub-Saharan Africa. This performance made Rwanda a darling of the World Bank, with billions of dollars being provided in loans and funds. Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, was repeatedly considered to be the cleanest city of the African continent. Nevertheless, a significant 39% of the population still lives in poverty, despite this rate diminishing exponentially over the past years. Rwanda is listed among the poorest and most fast-growing countries at the same time, outperforming its neighbours in many indices and rankings.

Rwanda has shown impressive results in many factors of development since Kagame assumed the presidential office. One of the most notable policies introduced was the Girinka program, or the so-called “One Cow per Poor Family” program. First introduced in 2006, it aimed to (and successfully did) provide 350.000 families with one cow each. The main goal of the policy was to address widespread child malnutrition and diminish poverty levels. The program design stipulated that when a cow gave birth, the first female calf had to be passed on to another family — therefore, as cows spawned, the program (and the targeted families) expanded. The program was still flawed as it was poorly implemented due to rampant corruption and a lack of skills among receiving families. Nevertheless, beneficiaries report that Girinka helped them become economically empowered and improved the health of the children, whose milk consumption was increased. The agricultural sector has experienced an uptick since the policy was introduced.

Nevertheless, with almost 90% of the population employed in the agricultural sector (which is common for African countries), Rwanda is aiming to turn from an agriculture-based to a knowledge-based economy, which is again inspired by Singapore. That’s why cows aren’t the only thing the Rwandan government is fond of: a similar-sounding “One Laptop Per Child” (OLPC) initiative was introduced in 2008 in collaboration with INGOs to improve literacy rates in the country. Around 300.000 students from over 400 schools have received personal laptops by 2018.

The Rwandan government pledged empowerment of women as Kagame repeatedly claimed that the inclusion of women is indispensable for sustainable growth. A world-leading 64% of the seats in the Parliament are occupied by women as a result of 2018 elections. Rwanda boasts the highest rate of female participation in the labour force, up to 84% of the total female population — by comparison, in Norway it is 60%. This made the country one of the world-leaders in gender representation, outperforming countries like the US in gender gap rankings. However, some argue that this is conditioned by the demographics of Rwanda: in the aftermath of the genocide, up to 70% of the population consisted of women. In an interview for NPR it was found out that Rwandan female politicians believe that the empowerment of women ended at the front door — regardless of the fact that they hold political power, their voices are silenced and their house responsibilities did not change, since Rwanda is an inherently patriarchal state. Furthermore, some activists argue that gender equality is a smokescreen for attracting foreign funding and maintaining an international image, while in fact the rights of women aren’t protected as they are advertised to be and no de-facto representation takes place.

Additionally, in recent years Rwanda has experienced tensions with foreign donors — mainly because of accusations of human rights violations. Democratic and human rights may well be the hidden cost that Rwanda paid for its economic growth — it seems like Kagame decided to follow Singapore in this aspect of state-rule as well. In order to disseminate the genocide ideology and divisionism, Kagame introduced a law prohibiting discussions and appeals of ethnicity in order to prevent inflaming ethnic enmity and hate speech. The genocide law, however, is often abused in order to silence dissenting voices of Kagame’s opposition, as Western critics argue. Since the enactment of legislation dozens of journalists, bloggers and activists have been persecuted, gone missing or sentenced due to genocide denial allegations. Kagame gave a public response to the criticism of foreign observers: “We’ve lived the consequences. So we understand it better than anyone from anywhere else.”

Repression is also prevailing in the political environment of Rwanda, as Human Rights Watch reported in 2019. The country, though being politically diverse de jure, in reality remains a one-party state. Opponents and critics of Rwanda’s leader have gone missing, been tortured, severely injured or killed under mysterious circumstances since the beginning of his rule. In the 2017 presidential elections Kagame earned 98.8% of votes, which was considered unfair and one-sided by outside observers. Today, Rwanda is considered democratic only on paper. However, the lack of political and speech freedoms is conditioned by the country’s historical context — some experts argue that democratic rule didn’t seem feasible in light of the atrocious genocide and tensions between ethnic groups. Besides, Western criticism is perceived as an imposition of neocolonial values.

As a post-genocide generation of Rwanda is rising, Kagame might face stronger opposition in fight for freedom of speech and political diversity. His accomplishment of an economic miracle cannot go unnoticed, but it might well be very soon that Rwandans demand more than economic growth. His authoritarian regime faces a lot of criticism from outsiders, but his approach and commitment to economic growth and political stability have borne their fruits, be it giving out laptops and cows or empowering women and reducing poverty rates.


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