President Kagame

20 years after the genocide: Rwanda - a country transformed

The African republic has made an extraordinary turnaround since the horrors of the 1990s. But will its charismatic leader, Paul Kagame, give up power gracefully when the time comes?

by Emma Haslett
Last Updated: 31 Dec 2014

A few weeks before I flew to Rwanda to cover the 20th anniversary of its genocide - the three-month period in 1994 during which one million Rwandans were slaughtered - a political opponent of the country's president, Paul Kagame, was murdered in his Johannesburg hotel room. Patrick Karegeya, the country's former spy chief, was found on 1 January, strangled with a curtain cord.

There had been hints from Rwandan government sources that it suspected Karegeya of being one of the brains behind a series of grenade attacks in Kigali, the nation's capital, over the past couple of years.

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal shortly after Karegeya's death, Rwanda's president denied responsibility for it, but added defiantly: 'I actually wish Rwanda did it. I really wish it.' Later, the country's prime minister, Pierre Habumuremyi, tweeted: 'Betraying citizens and their country that made you a man shall always bear consequences to you #Rwanda.'

In 1994, Kagame led the Rwandan Patriotic Front, the guerilla force credited with liberating the country from the murderous Interahamwe. In 2000, he assumed office after his predecessor resigned, and in 2003 was formally elected as president in the country's first democratic elections, and then again in 2010, both times with approval ratings above 90%. So far, so standard African dictatorship.

But that is where Rwanda's many contradictions begin. The country is tiny - barely larger than Belgium or Taiwan - but it commands disproportionate power among its neighbours, the DRC, Uganda, Tanzania and Burundi.

Sitting in a mountainous volcanic region, it is mostly covered in jungle and it rains for six months of the year, but the hot, cratered back streets of Kigali are covered with a fine, red dust. (The jungle, incidentally, is the only place on earth you are guaranteed a face-to-face meeting with a mountain gorilla. A friend said he was 'slapped in the face' by one. 'I think it was my beard. He thought I was his rival.')

Just under 45% of Rwanda's population is now below the poverty line, down from 60% in 2000.

Kagame himself has been described as an 'autocrat', but he isn't the traditional, golden-napkin-rings, pet-ostriches type. The likes of Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe have a reputation for languishing in palaces while their people starve. That is not at all Kagame's style.

In the two decades since the genocide, GDP per head has risen to almost $650, and just under 45% of the population is now below the poverty line, down from 60% in 2000. The economy has achieved average annual growth of 8.2% for the past 10 years. In fact, in the decade since he was elected, Kagame has transformed Rwanda's fortunes with such single-minded determination that commentators have dubbed him the 'CEO of Rwanda'.

The Rwandan government is one of very few in the world where female members of parliament outnumber men. It has introduced a health programme, where for $2 a year everyone is insured. It has ploughed millions of dollars into school and university places, pushing literacy from 48% in 1995 to just over 71%.

It has transformed main roads from dirt tracks pockmarked with the signs of genocide into the kind of well-maintained routes we Brits can only dream of (a good job, considering the state of some of the tyres in Kigali).

Most significantly, it has cracked down on corruption after realising that it prevents growth, with Kagame working with aid group Transparency International. Rwanda now ranks 49th out of 177 countries on the organisation's corruption index, up from 83rd in 2005.

Kagame spelled out his plans for this transformation in a document he published when he was first sworn in. Vision 2020 was his statement of intent. It was ambitious to the point of audacity: its major aspiration was to turn Rwanda into a middle-income country, raising average earnings from $237 per year to $900 and halving the number of people below the poverty line.

The document also outlined plans to expand the private sector by attracting investment from outside the country. But although aid inextricably links it to the west - despite Kagame's intentions to wean it off its dependence, Rwanda received $879m in 2012, $101m of which came from the UK, its second-biggest national donor - his practices make its relationship with western economies uneasy.

Organisations such as Human Rights Watch hold Kagame to account for a series of transgressions: from the number of political opponents who have met a bloody end, to alleged funding of the M23 militia, a Rwanda-based rebel group that makes occasional, gruesome trips into the borderlands of the Congo, and has been accused of recruiting child soldiers.

Even as a visitor, there's a sense something is up: there's the official portrait - doleful, bespectacled, cheaply framed - which stares out of walls in offices, shops and hotels. There are the soldiers: the dozens of young men who patrol Kigali's streets or shelter under palm trees in the manicured beds at the sides of roads, weapons slung across their chests. There are those suspiciously high approval ratings.

There are also stories: the contact whose colleague was hauled in front of police because he had been overheard making an anti-government remark; the Union Trade Centre, Kigali's largest shopping mall, which last August was seized by the government Commission of Abandoned Properties on the basis that it had been 'abandoned'. Its owner, tobacco baron Tribert Rujugiro Ayabatwa, is exiled in South Africa.

And last month, the government deported an American reporter, Steve Terrill, who had traced a bogus Twitter account in the name of a UN prosecutor to the president's office.

The account had been used to harass a Radio France Internationale journalist, Sonia Rolley, who had been reporting on the deaths of Rwandan dissidents.

But among Rwandans there is a sense of defiance against western criticism. It is understandable: as genocide raged, the US, the UK and the UN floundered, afraid of getting involved for fear of a repeat of their botched operations in Somalia.

France, on the other hand, got too involved, arming and training the Interahamwe before and during the violence. When Kagame's methods are criticised by westerners, he hits back that he's not doing it for the west. Minister of finance and economic planning Claver Gatete repeats the sentiment.

'Whatever they say, it was this president who stopped the genocide. It was not the west. Do you think the Rwandans really care what the west thinks? Nobody came to their rescue, and they've seen our president leading a nation to where we are now, where everyone has dignity.'

The uncomfortable truth for his western detractors is that for most Rwandans, Kagame's methods work. Visitors often say it is hard to believe parts of Kigali are in Africa, largely because the place is compulsively clean. Throughout the city, groups of women work to maintain it; once during my visit, a whole lane of traffic was closed off during rush hour just so they could scrub the road free of dirt.

Like any good CEO, Kagame has recognised the importance of making everyone feel a part of the turnaround. Speak to Rwandans - from senior politicians to the bellboy in a hotel - and they will cite 'making a contribution' as one of their primary motivations.

Bruce Krogh, director of Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) in Rwanda, says this became clear very quickly when the university first began taking students in the country.

'The most common answer to the question: "Why do you want to do this master's degree?" from the Rwandese students is "to help my country". There's this absolutely amazing spirit of "we need to make this work, we need to do what we can to contribute". I don't think I've ever seen an application in the United States where the person writes: "I want to do this to help my country."'

It is a patriotism that has been carefully cultivated by Kagame over the past two decades. As the country paused, dazed, in the aftermath of the genocide, the president and his allies developed the notion of agaciro, a Kinyarwanda term meaning 'dignity and self-worth'.

Agaciro plays to Kagame's reputation for fierce control: from the ban on plastic bags in 2006 to the new law that meant everyone had to wear shoes, to the groups of prostitutes told to form co-operatives and tender for contracts to clean the streets, it smacks of military-style discipline.

The concept has even been used as the basis of the Agaciro Development Fund, a 'solidarity fund' financed by the government, Rwandans and 'friends of Rwanda' to pay for projects that support the goals set out by Vision 2020 and, by extension, to 'improve the level of financial autonomy of Rwanda as a nation'. So far, it has received contributions of almost 21bn Rwandan francs (£18m).

This disciplined approach is at the centre of Kagame's vision: to make everything in Rwanda ordered, efficient, streamlined. It is the pace of change that strikes outsiders. 'I've lived here two years, and if I leave for three or four weeks, I come back and there have been visible changes,' says Krogh.

'Progress is admirable,' adds Dennis Overton, a Scot who is the director of Ikirezi Natural Products, an essential oils manufacturer based in the country.

'Doing business there has been much easier than I expected. One of the reasons I've pursued my interests there is because the impact one can have through building a quality business is immediate. You see hundreds of lives being changed quickly.'

On the morning after a violent thunderstorm, I meet Rwanda Development Board (RDB) chief executive Valentine Rugwabiza. The view from her sixth-floor office, overlooking the hills of Kigali - surprisingly lush and green for a capital city - is bright and sharp.

'It is because it is so humid,' she says, when I complain that the thunder, which rattled around the hills for 14 hours, kept me awake. 'That is what makes our country so beautiful, so of course we can't complain.'

Rugwabiza is one of many Rwandans who returned to the country during the aftermath of the genocide, giving up her job managing the west and central African regions for a 'Swiss pharmaceutical giant' - she won't say which - to 'participate in the process of rebuilding' Rwanda.

After a few years in the private sector, she was dispatched to Switzerland as Rwanda's ambassador, after which she spent four years as deputy director of the World Trade Organisation.

At the RDB, Rugwabiza says her role is to 'attract investment in the priority sectors of the government' - namely energy (it is still cheaper to have a maid in Rwanda than to run a washing machine), the services sector and IT.

The organisation has ploughed millions into attracting investment, streamlining the process of investing in the country to the point where it is now 32nd out of 189 in the World Bank's Ease of Doing Business Index. The process of registering a business - from filling in the first forms to walking away as the director of a company - takes 24 hours. It is now the ninth-best place to start a business in the world.

Technology is becoming increasingly important for Rwanda. In 2007, it hosted the Connect Africa Summit, at which it agreed to become a 'centre of excellence' for IT.

It was as good as its word. Since then, it has paid for fibre-optic broadband to be installed across the country. It has also begun a 10-year partnership with Carnegie Mellon University, under which the government pays the $20,000-a-semester fee for 22 students a year to do an MSc in science and information technology. Later this year, a master's in electrical and computer engineering will be added to the programme.

On the fifth floor of Telecom House, just above CMU, is kLab, an incubator for technology startups. In many ways, it is similar to London's Google Campus: furnished from top to bottom with Ikea's clean, modern designs, it serves giant mugs of strong coffee to the legions of developers crouched over desks or slouched on sofas, tapping feverishly at their laptops.

But whereas businesses based at London incubators create, for example, 'a girls-only app for insights on life, love and everything', these guys are building SMS-based apps to help farmers increase yields. It's all focused on making that vital contribution to society.

'At the moment, 10 companies have started here, and they're all creating jobs,' says Jovani Ntabgoba, kLab's general manager. 'Our hope is that we'll really get to have big, big projects coming out. Maybe the African Facebook. That's our dream.'

Rwanda's answer to London's Google Campus.

When I go to meet Jean Philbert Nsengimana, Rwanda's disarmingly young ICT minister, he is wrapping up a meeting with a group of loud Americans who sound suspiciously like they work for Facebook.

Three weeks later, at Barcelona's Mobile World Congress, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg introduced SocialEDU, an initiative financed by his foundation, which 'will provide students in Rwanda with free access to a collaborative online education experience'. Students will receive a free phone from Nokia, free data from Airtel and a free app from Facebook, with the government providing free Wi-Fi 'in campuses throughout the country'.

'We are in a process of transformation. IT is one of the tools to effect and accelerate that transformation,' says Nsengimana.

Broadband is one thing, but to compete with the big boys Kagame wants to establish Rwanda as a financial hub. It is an audacious goal, and you can tell how important finance minister Gatete's job is by his office: it is behind a quilted leather door, a little like a Chesterfield sofa. Everyone else has to put up with plain wood.

Turning Rwanda into Africa's answer to Dubai is happening, but slowly. In 2007, the country established the Capital Markets Authority and in 2011 the Rwandan Stock Exchange was launched: five companies are currently listed there, and it is in the process of being automated, which will allow investors to complete transactions on the day of trading.

Rwanda's relative stability, as well as its position near the centre of the continent and in close proximity to the abundant gold, diamonds and coltan of the Congo (a financial and political disaster zone), means the country is potentially a pretty good investment. Gatete says it is doing everything in its power to attract money.

'We have to make sure that the country is politically (stable),' he says. 'We have to make sure there is security...

We have to make sure we create a conducive business environment, so that whatever you want to do, you can be protected by the law.'

Last year, the country issued its first 10-year bond, which was massively oversubscribed, attracting $3bn of orders for a $400m sale. When it was issued, analysts expected yields of between 7% and 7.5%; in 2014, that has dropped to 4.2%, suggesting those tactics to create stability have worked. In January, Kagame said the country aimed to raise $1bn through bond issues this year.

Jonathan Berman, a senior adviser at strategic advisory firm Dalberg and the author of Success in Africa, says it is a testament to the country's efforts.

'I think investors see a government that is well run, established, efficient. It's very focused on creating and enabling investment, and it's also achieving significant growth,' he says.

'I think becoming a financial centre is achievable. If you look at Singapore and Dubai, which set their minds to it, putting in place the right regulatory environment and infrastructure is a significant (first step).'

The process will not be easy: Rwanda has stronger, better-established rivals in the form of Nigeria and Kenya, but Gatete says his country can compete.

'Yes, Nigeria's a big market, and we wish it to become a big market because it attracts investment in Africa,' he says. 'But, for us, we try to make sure that we are providing something unique and have all the necessary facilities that people need, and that the environment is conducive (to doing business).'

Despite all the hard work going into it, Rwanda still has its problems. It is grindingly poor, and although education continues to improve - it is now compulsory up to the age of 13 and each year 44,000 students enrol in its university courses - building a workforce with the right skills to fill the jobs he is creating is one of the toughest tests of Kagame's government.

Among the one million people wiped out during the genocide were highly skilled professionals. 'The nation was robbed of a generation of trained teachers, doctors, public servants and private entrepreneurs,' says Vision 2020. Twenty years on, with the economy developing at lightning speed, it is hard to find a workforce to keep up.

'One of the biggest challenges that we are confronted with today is capacity: we need to build that capacity in the private sector,' says RDB chief executive Rugwabiza.

The government has two solutions. Firstly, to entice back the diaspora - people such as Rugwabiza who fled during the violence - many of whom have been educated in the west.

'This is, I think, part of the legacy that (Kagame) has accomplished,' says Krogh. 'His ability to bring people back and get them to be part of what's happening has just been remarkable.'

The other strategy is to bring in expertise from outside the country, creating joint-ventures to share skills. At the end of last year, for example, Rwanda formed a $140m partnership with Korea Telecom to provide a 4G mobile phone network across 95% of the country.

But Krogh is worried this is not enough. 'The education system is not producing what's going to be needed if they truly want a knowledge-based economy,' he says.

'The capacity to have all the workforce educated - and the work ethic, the understanding of what it takes to really make things happen - they're very thin on that.

'What our students need are high-calibre, entry-level jobs where they start building that experience they need if they're really going to be an entrepreneur. Our graduates in the US get swept up by the dozen by the likes of Cisco into entry-level jobs where they start building up experience. They're not all being hired as managers. Where's that environment here? That's what's missing.'

But Rugwabiza is optimistic. 'We strongly encourage joint-ventures. We think it is, if you like, a kind of high-speed (way) of getting to learn, through joint-ventures with companies that have the right expertise and can pass that on.'

The biggest threat to this carefully built recovery is Kagame himself. Investors who know the country are keeping a close eye on the 2017 elections. He was sworn in in 2000, and formally voted in in 2003. The Rwandan constitution limits presidents to two seven-year terms.

As the nation's CEO, Kagame should be making plans for his succession. In past years, he has been adamant he will step down in 2017. But as crunch time approaches, he sounds less sure.

In our interview, Gatete becomes defensive about it.

'In terms of stepping down, if the Rwandans need him, they can retain him. That's their right...If they feel they want him to continue, it's up to the people,' he says.

He believes the constitution may be changed if Rwandans want Kagame to stay in power. 'Take the UK constitution. It says 'no term limit'. You go to Germany, no term limit...The constitution is made by people - you understand? If they want him or if they feel that maybe they need (him) to (stay), it's up to the people.'

Has Kagame named a successor? I ask him. Would you like the job? 'There is no job (up) for grabs. We are happy with the current setup. And at that point the people will decide what they want... the whole thing is, even now we are serving. You have an opportunity to serve at your level, and if you can do a good job there, I think that's enough. Yes.'

Investors find this worrying. As a senior member of one of the UK's largest institutional investors told me, there is already 'a worry about investing in Rwanda from a CSR perspective'. For Kagame to change the constitution would prove that the legislative stability Rugwabiza and Gatete are so proud of is built on sand.

For the past two decades, Rwandans have got used to an increasingly stable, increasingly wealthy society. Could the genocide happen again? Rwandan government sources worry that if Kagame steps down, it might. 'He hasn't finished what he begun,' they say.

But part of the test of a society is whether its members can live in peace. It has been a gruelling trial of their resolve, but for 20 years, Rwandans have shown they can. If Kagame stays on in 2017, he risks jeopardising all that, by proving he is no better than the rest of the African despots.

To preserve the way of life he has so painstakingly built, he must avoid the temptation to stay in power. The ultimate test of his carefully constructed society is proving it can withstand the challenges wrought by political succession.

Kagame may still be a hero to many Rwandans, but as my investor contact points out: 'he's only one person'. It takes millions to transform a nation.

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