Rwanda’s leader is both Solomon and Saddam

Paul Kagame wants to forge a sense of national identity from the ashes of genocide.

You get the feeling that nothing moves in Kigali, Rwanda’s prim and tidy capital, without Paul Kagame’s say-so. On the drive in from the airport, not a leaf on the palm trees, nor a flower on the intricate floral arrangements, is out of place. There are no slums on the hills, no litter on the pavements and no hawkers on the streets. The traffic is orderly, the police officers polite and, even in the searing heat, motorcyclists wear crash helmets.

Like Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore, Rwanda is being remade in Mr Kagame’s image. A former guerrilla who led an invading force to quell the genocide in 1994, he has presided over his tiny nation like a stern headmaster ever since. Like Singapore in the early years, Rwanda is an intriguing experiment. Like the late Lee, Mr Kagame is one of world’s most intriguing leaders. Stick thin, cerebral and quietly spoken (usually), he is cast as a man with Solomon-like wisdom and Saddam-like ruthlessness.

Anjan Sundaram, an author who is no fan of what he sees as a repressive, almost Orwellian, regime, wrote: “The thing to know about Rwandan President Paul Kagame is not just that he is a dictator responsible for human rights abuses but that, despite this, he has a great many friends.” Indeed, Rwanda is the favourite of an international community desperate for an African success. Mr Kagame has won the syrupy admiration of friends from Tony Blair to Bill Clinton, who called him “one of the greatest leaders of our time”.

This month, Rwanda received a further accolade when the World Economic Forum held its regional event in Kigali. Organisers said that, in east Africa, only tiny Rwanda had the facilities and organisational capacity to host Davos-in-Africa. That is no small thing to say of a country that, just two decades ago, went through one of the most horrifying eruptions of genocide in modern history. In a few short weeks, more than 800,000 Tutsis and their Hutu sympathisers, nearly one in 10 of the population, were clubbed or macheted to death at the government’s instigation.

These days Hutus and Tutsis live side by side in ostensible harmony. On Mr Kagame’s instructions, they rarely refer openly to their ethnicity. The president, a Tutsi, wants to forge a sense of Rwandanness from the ashes of genocide. In the new Rwanda, 1994 is year zero.

Beyond peace, there is development. The economy has grown 6-8 per cent for 15 years, although the population is growing at 2.5 per cent and some 90 per cent of Rwandans are subsistence farmers. The country has made strides in health, education and poverty reduction. It has shot up the World Bank’s ease of doing business rankings, partly because the president set up a special unit to achieve just that. Two-thirds of its parliamentarians and more than half of Mr Kagame’s cabinet are women.

For such reasons, the aid on which Rwanda still depends keeps coming. At least, say donors, money will be wisely spent, not stolen. Wary of sullying their model pupil’s reputation, they have been loath to criticise. In 2014, the World Bank produced a draft report on private investment in Rwanda, questioning its paucity despite apparently sound policies. The report was watered down before vanishing altogether, provoking grumbling within the bank that Rwanda was being given an easy ride.

Donors did briefly suspend aid after Rwanda was accused of backing rebels in neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo responsible for raping and abducting civilians. But generally they have closed their eyes. Human rights groups have catalogued a series of kidnappings, jailings and assassinations of journalists, dissidents and political rivals both inside Rwanda and beyond. Even the economic performance on which so much of its reputation is based has been questioned. David Himbara, a former economic adviser to Mr Kagame and now in exile in Canada because, he says, he fears for his life, claims growth and poverty figures are manipulated.

There are many repressive African regimes that fiddle the data. Rwanda is given a pass because all but its most dedicated detractors concede that Mr Kagame’s vision is bearing some fruit. Apart from a bit of harrumphing in Washington, few have objected to him staying on. Already in charge for 22 years, he will run for president again next year.

Lee, Singapore’s prime minister for 31 years and a hovering presence for 20 more, played on the “existential” threat of racial tension as justification for his paternalistic stewardship. Mr Kagame, queller of genocide, hardly needs invoke the spectre of violence. Like Lee, he is bending a nation to his will. Like Lee, his obituaries will mostly judge him on results.