Meditations on an African Leviathan

Feature image: Kigali’s financial district in the evening sun.

By Isaac Wilks

Twenty-five years to the month after the city was doused with blood and mangled bodies, I walked the streets of Kigali. I was following the arc of a wide avenue in the Kimihurura federal district, bounded on my right by a gleaming metallic fence. Compounds of strict, white-marbled block—federal offices—lined up at steady intervals behind it. Across the street to the left was the edge of a massive, perfectly circular park that was so manicured I was afraid to trample it—as if I would’ve been an asymmetric intruder among the rational equidistance of the acacia trees. The curbs bristled like lionfish with their stripes of red and white. 

 In short, it was a highly Euclidean scene, enough to make Le Corbusier blush—about as stately a thing as a state could produce. It was a little past 2pm on a weekday, seventy-eight degrees, and totally deserted. Wanting some shade, I crossed the street towards the park, gingerly treading across a small patch of grass on the verge. Once on the sidewalk, a hiss pierced the silence from behind me. I ignored it and quickened my pace. Then, closer, a second one. I turned, to face a group of angry, suited men.

 “What do you think you are doing? People work hard to maintain this. Do not do it again, I am warning you.”

 The Ordered Regime

 Order radiates from Kigali, Rwanda’s geographic and political heart. The city sits atop eleven hills, the most important of the country’s infamous thousand; and for a country the size of the Boston metropolitan area this lends Rwanda the feel of something just beyond a city-state (president Paul Kagame desires to transform the country into the “Singapore of Africa”). To be sure, parts of Kigali—most of it, in fact—still retain the dusty underdevelopment of much of Sub-Saharan Africa. But in the city center, places like Kimihurura are increasingly the rule. The Kigali Convention Center, Africa’s most expensive building, wards over a sprawling complex with its sweeping dome, masses of marble and glass guarded by elite black-suited palace guards armed with futuristic Israeli assault rifles. Entire hill-flanks of the city lay barren but for bright green grass, often thanks to the bulldozing of entire neighborhoods at the government’s discretion, to make way for a new gleaming techno-zone. People pick up and move with almost no resistance. In 2006, the city had eight-hundred police officers for a population of one million.

 High-modern imposition aside, Kigali can be breathtaking. The city is lush, and in the dry season the weather is perfect. In the autumn months huge clouds rumble just over the hilltops, and the city feels drawn close to the East African sky, like a child with her nose pressed up against the glass at an aquarium. It’s hard to find a spot without a sweeping vista of the sun-dappled hills, a fact best enjoyed from a hip café or a sleek rooftop bar. During those particularly swaddling moments of early dusk (it’s five o’clock somewhere), the city drips a polished tropical cool. Appearances are everything here. History, on the other hand, is not.

 Chaos

On the fourth of July, 1994, Paul Kagame marched his Tutsi army into Kigali, ending the Rwandan Genocide and restoring government to Rwanda. His army, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), became the ruling party, and though he didn’t officially ascend to the presidency until 2000, Kagame has essentially ruled Rwanda since then.

It’s comforting to think of genocide as a machine, calculatingly engineered by an efficient central evil. But the genocide against the Tutsi, though planned by Hutu elites, was mostly executed by ordinary civilians. For a few months in 1994 the streets of Kigali were thronged with masses of people either killing or being killed. Neighbors picked up machetes and hacked their neighbors and their neighbors’ children to death. Across Rwanda, countless towns saw the near total annihilation of their Tutsi population. Fleeing masses packed into churches, only to have conspiratorial priests give the signal for grenades to be thrown in through the stained glass. Tutsi and moderate Hutu women were raped and mutilated en masse. The Rwandan Genocide was not an autocratic exercise of state power, but the total destruction of the state’s power to protect. It makes sense, then, that Rwanda’s current regime draws its legitimacy from its ability to project sheer security. The foundational moment of the Rwandan state is one of national shock.

 Kagame’s life, too, has been marked by horrific violence. He was born to an elite Tutsi family during the last years of Belgian colonial rule, right before Rwanda’s bloody independence revolution which, in 1961, led to the toppling of the Tutsi monarchy by a Hutu-supremacist government. His family fled state persecution when he was a toddler, and he would grow up a refugee in Uganda, not to see his homeland until his twenties; even then, he did so covertly, crossing the border from Zaire to avoid arrest. He was accepted to an elite private high school, but when his father died and his best friend, Fred Rwigyema, disappeared, his grades tanked, and he started getting into fights with anyone who belittled Rwanda, leading to his suspension. He graduated from an old public school, without distinction. 

Sometime after his graduation, though, Kagame reunited with Rwigyema. Uganda at the time was under the boot of Idi Amin, who in 1979 was overthrown by Yoweri Museveni’s rebel army. Seeing an opportunity to ease the persecution of Rwandans in Uganda, Kagame and Rwigyema joined Museveni’s army, fighting a brutal bush war that would eventually install Museveni as president in 1986. By this time, Kagame and Rwigyema had risen to the top of the military’s intelligence arm; president Museveni then named them top lieutenants. Soon though, they were demoted, casualties of an anti-Rwandan backlash. Spurred by a renewed feeling of urgency, the two best friends began to gather up a nucleus of exiled Rwandan Tutsi soldiers within the military—they would eventually become the RPF. In 1990, while Kagame was at a US Army officers’ school in Kansas, Rwigyema gathered up the RPF and invaded Rwanda.

Kagame returned from the Kansas plains to find his best friend dead and his army in tatters. He took command and led the shattered men into the high jungle of the Virunga mountains. From there, he began a guerilla insurgency against the Hutu regime. The timing of this was no accident—the Hutu extremist propaganda machine had already begun spewing racist ideology over the airwaves, and machetes were being ordered in bulk by genocidal conspirators. In June 1992, a tentative Hutu-Tutsi power-sharing agreement was signed, and Kagame announced a ceasefire. But by early 1993, Hutu militias had formed and began coordinated attacks on Tutsi people. Kagame suspended talks and launched a full-scale invasion, storming from the north and capturing a large swath of territory. Kagame paused once again for additional peace talks and the arrival of a trivial UN peacekeeping force. But on April 6, 1994, a plane carrying president Juvénal Habyarimana was shot down over Kigali. Within an hour, the first roadblocks had been set up in Kigali, and the slaughter of the Tutsi began. Over the next hundred days, up to a million people were killed. Kagame waged war on the génocidaires, eventually capturing Kigali and ending the genocide. Nearly everyone alive in Rwanda today is either a genocide survivor, or a child of one.

 Progress Reborn

The Rwandan narrative since then has been one of definitive progress and safety. Kagame has brought the rule of a disciplinarian general to government, exercising harsh control over the bureaucracies he created. As he marshalled tight security and order, Kagame built functional political institutions that restored Rwandan state capacity and led to unprecedented development. The country has posted staggering levels of economic growth, averaging high single-digit percentages per year, and services (especially IT) have ballooned to become the largest national sector. Infrastructure has steadily improved, with internet penetration especially taking the countryside by storm. Infant mortality has been slashed, and the government now provides universal healthcare free at the point of sale to its 12 million citizens. Today, Rwanda now boasts one of East Africa’s best education systems; the population of Kigali is increasingly dominated by a young, well-educated, urbane, and online white-collar workforce. Luxury tourists from the West and China have poured in, filling the Afro-futurist pods of high-end eco-lodges suspended glittering in the northern cloud forest. At $1,500 dollars apiece, the permits to track some of the world’s last remaining mountain gorillas in the Virunga massif are one of the largest single sources of revenue for the Rwandan government. Business is booming.

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Kagame, his head silhouetted, watches a gorilla.

Atop this constant motion sits Kagame, the archetype of the benevolent strongman. As a rule, all of Rwanda’s flagship projects are generally a direct manifestation of his will. He rules ruthlessly, to this day maintaining an active international assassin network capable of posing threats to dissident exiles as far as Belgium.

Guiding his nation, he raises the gleaming promise of Vision 2020 (increasingly being subsumed by Vision 2050), a part-development plan, part-narrative-creation operation intended to catapult Rwanda to middle-income status. In its PR optics, one finds a pure expression of the Rwandan national ethos.

Immaculate Optimism

Rwanda, unlike most modern African states, has been a coherent polity for its entire recorded history. By the 15th century, a class-ordered monarchy was established in Rwanda, with a predominantly-Hutu populace ruled by a minority Tutsi elite class loyal to the Mwami, or king. It seems that the Hutu-Tutsi class divide did not emerge from racial strife; rather—it is the other way around—the racial divisions between the two groups are due to historical class divisions (though this is of course highly contentious). During their half-millennium of rule, the Tutsis wielded power through their control of the central means of economic production in precolonial Rwanda: cattle. The elite maintained large herds, practiced pastoralism, and drank dairy while the Hutu masses were relegated to subsistence farming. The archetypal difference between Tutsi and Hutu—height—is a common indicator of the disparities in nutrition that come with acute class divisions. Tellingly, when the Belgian government sought to separate Rwandans with race-based identification cards in 1935, they simply marked anyone with ten or more cattle as a member of the Tutsi class. Those below were named Hutu.

This quasi-feudalist social order, called ubuhake, was remarkably resilient, persisting until the late 1940s when one of the last Tutsi Mwamis abolished it and attempted to redistribute land and cattle. Seeking to exit the country after it was named a UN trust following World War Two, the Belgians introduced electoral representation by the 1950s. The Hutus, being the overbearing demographic majority, elected a majority Hutu government. Immense socioethnic friction ensued, and the Tutsi aristocracy panicked. By 1959, what’s known as the Wind of Destruction had begun; Tutsis began to be killed and flee en masse. The Belgians packed their bags and were gone by 1962, and the nascent Rwandan republic was immediately hijacked by Hutu supremacists. The rest of the 20th century was marked by constant ethnic violence, culminating in the bloodbath of 1994. 

Kagame, to be clear, has actively combated racist ideology—he wiped any mention of ethnicity from ID cards and census data, and has constructed a positive national identity of Rwandan unity—but he seems to have restored Rwanda to its natural state: ordered rule, by the few.

Kagame’s regime rules by cleanliness. Plastic bags are banned nationwide, street vendors are jailed, and the citizens of Kigali take to the streets once a month for mandatory community street-cleaning. Modernist rationality pervades Kigali’s futurist government aesthetics—thatched roofs are already illegal. 

The CGI of the city’s “2040 Masterplan” video shows a radiant techno-futurist Kigali: the camera darts among gleaming shopping malls and cultural centers, zooming out to a bird’s eye view of a perfectly platted city of cement and glass, with all of the undulating, legibly rounded geometry of a suburb of Las Vegas or Charlotte. The scintillating towers and green-roofed office parks end abruptly at the city limits, as if restrained by some invisible feudal parapets keeping watch over an endless expanse of green marshland. A soothing female narrator accompanies us with promises of a “dream financial hub,” a “vibrant growth center,” “key growth centers with innovation-centric developments,” and “new urban lifestyle concepts…”

No matter that a small section of this plan that has been built, Vision City, is a largely abandoned, gated community of homogenous concrete block. In places like Kimihurura, the vision—in the optical sense of the word—has already been realized. This is a monument to a new Rwanda, free of the bloody chaotic shackles of the past. But to become a high-modern Singapore sans coastline, Rwanda will need more than sweeping virtual arcologies.

Some Damn Foolish Thing in the Balkans?

Seldom has a country reached post-industrialization without ever actually industrializing, but that is not stopping Kagame from trying. Rwanda has not put out an industrial policy plan since 2011. It seems that Kagame has since concluded that fundamentals—a poor resource base and regional underdevelopment—preclude an immediate and exponential industrialization (or at least make it unacceptable due to environmental destruction). Instead, the Rwandan government has doubled down on turning the country into a “knowledge-based economy”—not without some success. The ICT sector has grown rapidly since the turn of the century, second only to tourism in terms of national foreign exchange earnings. Rwanda has leveraged its open business environment and cheap workforce to attract outsourced ICT jobs; multinational software giants like Andela routinely announce the creation of hundreds of remote software developer jobs in Kigali. Money has poured in, such as a staggering $400m investment made by the African Development Bank into Kigali Innovation City, a centrally-located tech park. Carnegie Mellon University has even opened a campus in the city. The bottom line is this: provided political stability, Rwanda will continue to steadily, incrementally, linearly improve.

A quick look at regional geopolitics, however, reveals a high residual potential for violence, exacerbated by political uncertainty.

Kagame invaded the neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo twice in the late 1990s, and the RPF maintains a continued presence there to smuggle raw minerals into Rwanda for re-export. Kagame has a penchant for fomenting rebellions there, most recently the notorious M23 rebellion of 2012. He has engaged in proxy warfare against his former boss, Museveni, in the area, leading to tensions between the vital trading partners. A war with Uganda would be catastrophic; the RPF could initiate a protracted guerrilla slog, but the service economy would collapse overnight. Uganda’s fighter jets could neutralize Rwanda’s diminutive industrial base and sever Rwanda’s vital international highway links which the country relies on to import food. Recent months have seen border closings and troop buildup on both sides, and in May, Rwandan forces pursued a smuggler into Ugandan territory, shooting him and another Ugandan dead.

Instability could threaten Rwanda’s ambition towards continental players status, too. Rwanda, along with Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Burundi, and South Sudan, currently make up the supranational East African Community, and Rwanda is currently helping lead the push to turn this community from a mere free trade area into a single-currency single market and eventually a unified federation. If it goes through, Kigali will be a major political player in what would be the largest country in Africa, and the eight-most populous state in the world, with nearly 180 million people. War could close this route to global relevance for a generation. For now though, growth continues apace.

Myth and Narrative

To be sure, Rwanda is not on the cusp of a Singapore-style industrialization, and Paul Kagame—though a highly skilled commander, founder, and statesman—is not a demigod. Official Rwandan narrative-building is prone to hyperbole. This is understandable considering the depths from which Rwanda must rise in the eyes of the international community.

 Tempting though it may be to critique Kagame’s vision as a dressed-up redux of midcentury American office park optimism, this would elide what really matters about Rwanda: twenty-five years after bearing witness to one of the most demonic episodes of slaughter in modern history, one can sit and ponder the merits of a hypothetical white-collar wonderland in that same country. It is almost absurd.

Our own Western elite seems prone to forgetting this. Consider that, after a constitutional amendment extending Kagame’s rule to 2034, the US State Department called for Kagame’s resignation, to “foster a new generation of leaders in Rwanda.”

Do we really believe this should be done? Yes, Paul Kagame has committed acts of evil. But is it truly the position of our nation’s foreign policy apparatus that he must resign? This cannot be. Kagame has as of yet no clear successor, and should he relinquish power tomorrow, it is nearly impossible that his high degree of governmental control, and the implicit skills required to maintain it, could be conferred upon whomever would spring up in his place. And for a country where state capacity is as good as oxygen insulating the populace from the vacuum of the natural state of violence, this notion becomes even less credible.

This is pure ritual. We in the West can no longer mount a defense of what it means to promote freedom, democracy, and the rule of law. We have retreated to scripted platitudes drained of the force of belief, mechanically, cynically invoked even if their execution would lead to chaos. A tired charade reigns, abstracted from not only the conditions of its birth, but also the implicit irony and flexibility once understood as inherent in its original use.

An honest, rational critique of Kagame’s regime can be mounted if we acknowledge that the socioeconomic questions must be applied with equal rigor to the way in which we in the West have organized our own postindustrialization, foreign and domestic. But until then, we will continue to gasp at the fumes of our sundowning hegemonic moment. As long as we continue trying to refract the arc of history out of sight and out of mind, we will see nothing.


Isaac Wilks is a sophomore in Pauli Murray College. He can be contacted at isaac.wilks@yale.edu.