April is a cruel month for Rwanda: the anniversary of the genocide. But 1994 genocide has been very good to Rwanda’s goverment of Paul Kagame, the most personally correct leader in Africa. Weaned on Uganda’s rebel movement that led to the end of the country’s civil wars, Kagame later received military training in the U.S. His victorious guerilla struggle, in the confusing weeks and months after the end Hutu-led genocide, was made into the stuff of legends by journalists. Today, Rwanda receives a “genocide dividend,” cherished by donors who failed to act during the genocide itself. Kagame’s ability to consolidate power at home, in fascistic style, and to maintain an enlightened, even visionary, image internationally remains one of the great political achievements of our times. Kagame ranks, if not the equal of Mandela, then a peer. He is the second great, world-historical African leader produced since the end of the Cold War.
Kagame is also an Anglophone, which suits the times. English after all is a kind of currency, and African leaders trapped in the Francophonie, while at best cultivated and Europeanized, lack the plain talk that Kagame applies to his advantage. He is, if anything, more attracted to Asian leaders and, because he presides over a small country, the Asian leader he most admires is the Singaporean independence leader and unabashed authoritatian ruler, Lee Kwan Yew.
Had Kagame lived in a less politically-correct time, he could also openly admire the Israeli leaders of the past. Israel after all was born following the mother of all genocides, and Kagame is, if anything, more Ben Gurion than proto-Confucian. Yet in global politics today, Kagame cannot appear to emulate Israel, even though his entire international-relations strategy comes straight from the Jerusalem playbook.
For some years now, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have hammered away at Kagame’s government, flinging accustations of HR violations wily nily. The French government, still boiling over their ejection from the country and the conversion of the Rwandese elite to English, have repeatedly accused Kagame of a “second genocide,” this against the retreating Hutus, who fled to eastern Congo after their defeat and for years carried on a pathetic yet vicious war against both the Congolese and Rwandese governments. Even a few foreign-assistance groups have shunned Rwanda, fearing that Kagame’s effecient police state might actually depend on something worse than intimidation to silence (or punish) critics.
But the murmur of dissenting views on Rwanda has long remained below the radar of the world community’s conventional wisdom. Now the convenient situation may change. The hugely influential New York Times, and its excellent East African reporter, have found that intimidation against its critics may be the ultimate aim of Kagame’s compulsion for order in a Rwanda that visitors count among the safest countries, not only in Africa but the world.
Kagame is a survivor and his Singaporean approach to conformity could acually be a model for a new kind of governance in Africa. By putting results over due-process, pragmatic Kagame could teach some other African governments a few lessons about the perils of promoting democratic form over the substance of economic gain. Good politics after all is the “secret sauce” lacking in so many disappointing African societies. Complaints about rights will always burden Kagame’s legacy. But in the end, if he can deliver economic growth, in an Asian style, then he justly will deserve the title of Africa’s greatest leader in the 21st century.
The trouble, of course, is that Rwanda is not experiencing any kind of economic leap forward. The country’s gaudy official growth figures are the result of foreign aid and good-samaritan money pouring into the country — and aided by Africans of Tutsi descent who have returned to the country in small but significant numbers. Unless Kagame learns his economics lessons as well as he has mastered politics and warfare, Rwanda is well–positioned for harsher criticism — and Kagame too. Perhaps Kagame, who is unquestionably intelligent and self-aware, recognizes the shifting terrain. His “sneak” visit into Oklahoma on Friday, officially to attend the graduation ceremony of a small Christian college, is evidence of his perceived need to maintain a low-profile. While media insisted that Kagame’s low-profile was merely to avoid being served in a counter-genocide lawsuit against him, filed by prominent Hutus, the likelier explanation was that Kagame made secret visits to the CIA and National Security Council while in the U.S. Kagame remains Uncle Sam’s most reliable ally in central Africa, and the strength of his national-security apparatus raises one other parallel with Israel: Rwanda is a valuable military ally and a frontline actor in any U.S. move against Islamic militants in East Africa.