Rwanda as an African Model
Photo by Margaretta Soehendro

By Margaretta Soehendro, Staff Writer

Rwanda as an African Model

Veteran journalist Stephen Kinzer talks about his latest book, on President Paul Kagame's role in the amazing rise of Rwanda.

Everyone knows how to develop Africa, but no one wants to do it.

In the development business, right now Rwanda is the "hottest place" to go, said Stephen Kinzer, a columnist for the United Kingdom's Guardian and former bureau chief for The New York Times in Turkey, Germany, and Nicaragua. Kinzer spoke at a lecture sponsored by the UCLA African Studies Center on Oct. 3, 2008.

That Rwanda generates investor interest may come as a surprise, given memories of the 1994 genocide that resulted in about 800,000 deaths.

The distance between that prevailing impression of Rwanda and its current reality intrigued Kinzer. His new book, A Thousand Hills: Rwanda's Rebirth & the Man Who Dreamed It, recounts President Paul Kagame's roles first as a Rwandan revolutionary leader and then as chief executive of the country.

Kinzer called Kagame "one of the most successful revolutionary leaders in the last century." Kagame grew up as a refugee in Uganda, his family having fled a year after the 1959 revolution began. He would fight with Yoweri Kaguta Museveni, the current president of Uganda, in the overthrow of then President Idi Amin in 1979. Afterward, he served as an officer in the Ugandan army, and he began to recruit mostly fellow ethnic Tutsis for the Rwandan Patriotic Army (RPA) and the overthrow of President Juvénal Habyarimana. In October 1990, with stolen Ugandan army weapons, the RPA invaded Rwanda, beginning a conflict that would bring the capital Kigali and almost all of Rwanda under RPA control in four years.

Kinzer said Kagame wanted to create a coalition government, since he and most members of the RPA were Tutsi while most of the population was Hutu, but was unable to craft a compromise. After initially controlling the government through a Hutu president that many called a puppet, Kagame became president in 2000.

Responding to a question about why Africa could not seem to develop, Kagame told Kinzer, "I reject the premise of the question. Everyone knows how to develop Africa, but no one wants to do it."

Under an umbrella of a non-corrupt government, Kagame's formula for development places security as the highest priority, followed by education, health care, gender equality, and physical and virtual infrastructure. According to Kinzer, he seems to have succeeded in all of those things to some degree.

Kinzer said Kigali is the safest African city "by far," facilitating cooperation with NGOs and foreign companies.

Women, such as Foreign Minister Rosemary Museminali, have been placed in high-level positions, and in last month's parliamentary elections, Rwanda became the first country to have a majority female parliament.

Kinzer said that while Rwanda has the potential to be a great success story, there are concerns that shadow its development. While reconciliations between victims and perpetrators of the 1994 genocide do occur in the country, Hutu-Tutsi tension remains an undercurrent and the subject is taboo.

Kinzer also said Africa has gone through many heroes, and that Kagame's story is ongoing. Rwanda's constitution limits presidents to two seven-year terms, and it remains a question whether Kagame will let go of the presidency when the time comes. Kagame said that he would, but he also acknowledged that until that day comes, people would continue to speculate.

After years of successful authoritarian rule and like other revolutionary leaders before him, said Kinzer, Kagame may come to question whether others can govern the country.

Rwanda "is an open story," Kinzer said. "Let's see what happens."

Published: Tuesday, October 14, 2008