Has Paul Kagame flown too high?

Politics and Society

Has Paul Kagame flown too high?

Growing scepticism of Rwanda’s development achievements could erode the president’s international reputation.



Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame has been flying high for a while. His reputation – mainly international though he wields some continental clout – has been growing. Through skilful diplomacy, he has established himself in the eyes of the wider world at least, as an African leader to be reckoned with.

He gets invited to prestigious international gatherings like Davos. Last year he buried the hatchet with France about its support for Rwanda’s genocidal Hutu government in 1994. And next year Kagame will consolidate his already good standing with the Anglo world by hosting the Commonwealth heads of state summit.

In Africa his reputation has been a lot more mixed. Kagame has aspired to continental leadership and has achieved some, taking charge of the successful drive to get the African Continental Free Trade Agreement signed in record time. But it is mainly his achievements on the wider stage that have left other African governments perplexed, annoyed and often rather envious

Paul Kagame’s African critics scoff that he is more phony Franco than Francophonie

They scoff that he is more phony Franco than Francophonie. To snub France (though also, it is said, to sideline the French-speaking Rwandan Hutu) he abandoned the French language for English. And Rwanda’s accession to the Commonwealth, largely designed it seemed to irritate Paris, occurred despite Rwanda having no British colonial history.


Kagame’s international reputation rests ultimately on the perception that he is doing a great job of developing his own country. Kigali is famous for its clean streets, which epitomise his claim that Rwanda is the Singapore of Africa – somewhat authoritarian but effective and successful. This authoritarianism the world has apparently deemed forgivable – ignoring egregious human rights abuses of all who stand in his way – because he is keeping the peace, curbing corruption and reducing poverty.

Officially, at least, that is true. The Rwandan economy has been growing by an average 8% a year for a decade. The proportion of people classified as poor has fallen by seven percentage points since 2011, to 38% in 2017. Those statistics impress donors desperate for good news from African and especially from Rwanda with its traumatic history.

And so the aid dollars pour in, helping further to buoy the economy, which in turn promotes more aid. The World Bank has committed more than US$4 billion to the country since the 1994 genocide mainly for structural reforms, especially in health, education and agriculture.

But now it seems Kagame’s Singapore analogy is starting to wear thin. Human rights defenders have long been warning that Rwanda’s human rights offences are different to what Western donors seem to believe.

Many economists are questioning Kagame’s justification that he is lifting his people out of poverty

Political opposition has increasingly been suppressed, either through arrests or assassinations or attempted assassinations of political opponents at home and abroad. These continue to sour relations with important African countries, such as Uganda, Kenya and South Africa. Pretoria expelled four Rwandan diplomats and downgraded diplomatic relations in 2014 after the assassination of Patrick Karegeya, Kagame’s estranged intelligence chief; and the third or fourth attempt on the life of his former chief of staff Faustin Kayumba Nyamwasa.


Last year Kagame and South African President Cyril Ramaphosa met and agreed to normalise relations. But this hasn’t happened. In July both sides’ foreign ministers decided to separate the legal processes from normalising relations. Soon after, Pretoria, under pressure from its courts, sent Kigali a request to extradite two of Karegeya’s suspected assassins. Whether that has again derailed normalisation is not yet clear.

Pretoria frets that in the absence of a powerful pan-Africanist like Thabo Mbeki or Olusegun Obasanjo, Kagame has the field almost to himself. And it worries that Kagame will use the elevated platform of hosting the Commonwealth summit next year to pooh-pooh his critics.

Yet South Africa itself has been criticised for helping give Kagame this pedestal. Richard Bourne, writing in Round Table: The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs, rebuked the organisation’s members for accepting Kagame’s invitation to host the summit. He said Rwanda’s human rights record was at odds with the Commonwealth Charter. ‘At least three key states – South Africa, the UK and Canada – were aware that this government does not sit easily in the frame of Commonwealth values. Why did they not [stop this choice]?’ Bourne asks.

The World Bank has committed more than US$4 billion to Rwanda since the 1994 genocide

South African officials turn the table, blaming the West for playing into Kagame’s hands. Like many others, they find it extraordinary that despite his fallout with France, Kagame has now so thoroughly made up with President Emmanuel Macron. And they believe that by forging relations with Israel, he hasn’t only secured its support but also guaranteed continuing support from the US and UK.

Some critics think it’s rich that South Africa, of all countries, is skulking enviously in the corner. Especially given Rwanda’s atrocities committed on South African soil, why is Pretoria not standing up and challenging Kagame’s pretentions to continental leadership?


But other circumstances may be conspiring to clip Kagame’s wings. A growing army of economists is beginning to question his justification that he is lifting his people out of poverty. Academic Filip Reyntjens of Antwerp University has examined Rwanda’s claim to have shrunk poverty from 44.9% in 2011 to 39.1% in 2014 – just before a crucial referendum.

He found the drop was largely due to ‘comparing apples with pears’ – updating the content of the basket of goods used to define poverty in 2014. Reyntjens said if the same basket had been used in 2011 and 2014, poverty would have increased by about five to seven percentage points.

Senior researcher Sam Desiere of the University of Leuven in Belgium, meanwhile, concludes that the declining official poverty rate is based on a falsely low 5.3% official annual rate of food inflation. He calculated that this rate should be 9.4% a year.

‘Other academics looking at the same data reckon that rising prices alone may have increased poverty by seven percentage points,’ The Economist wrote in August. It added that the jumps in poverty calculated by Reyntjens and Desiere would be surprising in light of Rwanda’s rapid GDP growth of 8% a year. But it noted that some academics suggested Rwanda had also exaggerated that figure.

The Financial Times reported in August that a group of World Bank economists had secretly written to the bank’s leadership in 2015, lending their support to the sceptics who question Rwanda’s stellar development statistics. The bank’s leadership evidently ignored them.  ‘Questioning Rwanda’s statistics may seem to be no more than quibbling over numbers. But at stake is Mr Kagame’s reputation, and that of the developmental model he embodies,’ The Economist wrote.


His critics are hoping that, like Icarus, Kagame has now flown too close to the sun and is about to lose his wings and plunge to Earth. Others suspect that, as in the past, he will simply brazen out the latest setback and continue to soar.

Peter Fabricius, ISS Consultant

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