Looking at Kagame in context, and why democracy is a privilege

This past month, Tufts invited President Paul Kagame of Rwanda to speak. After President Kagame’s lecture, an op-ed was submitted to the Daily criticizing the university for giving him a platform on our campus. The article — written by Alex Gladstein and published on April 24 — was one-sided in a way that is detrimental to any attempt at a complete discussion about the country and President Kagame’s leadership. When analyzing Rwanda, it is necessary to look at the country’s history. An open political space is a privilege of countries without legitimate worries about the takeover of genocidal ideology. It is true that, under President Kagame’s leadership, there have been massive human rights violations. The Rwandan Patriotic Front takeover in 1994, while not genocide, did result in great casualties and war crimes, and the subsequent invasion of Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) was similarly tainted. There is not complete freedom of speech in the country, nor is there space for dissenting political opinions. Rwanda is not a full and thriving democracy, but 20 years after the genocide, can it be?
Twenty years ago, Rwanda was destroyed. After the genocide, in the wake of an unprecedented judicial backlog, ruined infrastructure and endless trauma, the country needed strong leadership. Today, that leadership is still needed. A 2010 survey showed that 39.9 percent of Rwandans agreed with this statement: “Although it is against the law, some Rwandans would try to commit genocide again, if conditions were favorable.” I am not saying this to give President Kagame a free pass for political oppression, but for some people to slam the quelling of free speech without contextualizing the issue is rash and ill-advised.

It is true that only two questions during the Q&A session were “hard-hitting,” and those questions were important and deserve space in a discussion. But why delegitimize questions about economic development and regional and continental integration? Rwanda, while still an incredibly impoverished country, has seen notable economic growth. Eighty percent of firms in Rwanda were started between 2006 and 2011, and the country continues to attract foreign investment by being the safest country in the region. President Kagame is vocal about wanting to move the country away from dependence on foreign aid, and Vision 2020, an economic plan for Rwanda, hopes to make the nation a middle-income economy in the next six years. It is not a given that these goals will be accomplished, but it’s worth talking about. In the face of a devastated economy in 1994, Rwanda needed a forceful leader. It was under President Kagame’s leadership that the country has had such notable achievements. Only 20 years ago, the country needed to completely rebuild — basic necessities, like food and shelter, were prioritized. It is unreasonable to assume that a country where people struggled to survive is capable of implementing a democracy.

President Kagame is not comparable to former president of Iran Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. If we are going to start clumping together all leaders who have committed human rights abuses, we should add many United States presidents and other democratic leaders to the list. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has issued a Cessation Clause for Rwandan refugees, essentially saying that it should be safe for all Rwandan refugees to return to the country and that Rwanda wants them back. This is indicative of the strides the country has taken to reconstruct the security and human rights status of the nation. President Kagame’s actions must be contextualized by the real security threat Rwanda faces from political opponents and genocide deniers. Making radical comparisons does nothing to contribute to a conversation about why Rwanda might need a more authoritarian regime.

I did not write this to minimize the many problems with the Rwandan government, but I do think it is necessary to take into consideration the context of Rwanda before hitting President Kagame with un-contextualized criticism. Twenty years ago, Rwanda was in the midst of genocide. Democracy does not happen overnight, and political freedom is a privilege. If we are going to make a space at Tufts for a discussion about Rwanda as it is today, then it must include both the criticism and an understanding of Rwandan society. Rwanda is still healing. The effects of the genocide are still relevant, and that must be taken into consideration when understanding the country today. I’m excited to have a dialogue about Rwanda on campus, but if it is not holistic, it will be unproductive.

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