Rwanda: The good, the bad, and the ugly

Rwanda: The good, the bad, and the ugly

For many, Paul Rusesabagina became a household name after the release of the 2004 tear-jerker film Hotel Rwanda, which was set during the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

Rusesabagina, who used his influence as a hotel manager to save the lives of more than 1,000 Rwandans, has again made headlines in recent weeks after he was reportedly duped into boarding a flight to Kigali, Rwanda's capital, where he was promptly arrested on terrorism, arson, kidnapping and murder charges. Rusesabagina's supporters say he is innocent and that the move is retaliation against the former "hero" for his public criticism of President Paul Kagame, who has ruled the country with a strong hand since ending the civil war in the mid 1990s.


Indeed, this case reflects the full scope of complexities underpinning contemporary Rwandan politics and society.

Paul Kagame: A "benevolent dictator"

Much of Kagame's worldview was formed during his formative years growing up in a Ugandan refugee camp. An ethnic Tutsi, Kagame was one of hundreds of thousands who fled during the country's decades-long civil war to escape violent attacks by the Hutu-led government.

In the waning days of the Rwandan genocide — during which Tutsis were systematically raped, tortured and murdered by their Hutu neighbors, and some 1 million Rwandans were killed — Paul Kagame commanded the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RFP), a Tutsi militia that eventually ended the Hutus' murderous campaign, emerging as the most powerful political force in post-conflict Rwanda. Kagame became president in 2000.

Since then, Kagame has been credited with overseeing a period of stability and economic prosperity after one of the world's bloodiest conflicts, but critics accuse him of widespread human rights abuses.

Internal perceptions

While many Rwandans revere Kagame for his role in ending the conflict and then putting Rwanda on the map as one of the fastest-growing economies in Africa, and one of the best places to do business in the world (in the World Bank's 2019 "Doing Business" report it ranked 29th out of 190 countries), he is also widely viewed as a strongman known for suppressing dissenting views and creating an atmosphere of growing mistrust and fear.

Indeed, politically motivated killings and enforced disappearances of high-profile political opponents in the years since Kagame took power are well documented, while human rights groups have long denounced arbitrary arrests and torture of Rwandans who dare to criticize the government.

Many Rwandans also lament the concentration of power amongst a small group of political elite who are loyal to the president. Kagame's reelection in 2017 — when he claimed to have reaped a fanciful 99 percent of the vote — was seen by many as a sham, reflective of the oppressive political environment the RFP has cultivated. Importantly, this contested election came just two years after Kagame held a referendum overriding term limits that would allow him to stay at the helm until 2034. (Vladimir Putin seemed to find this move inspiring, following suit this year.)

External perceptions

The international development community, and much of the West, have lauded Kagame for steering the country through a period of profound economic growth that's lifted at least 1 million people out of poverty. Meanwhile, Kagame's focus on expanding female representation in politics — over 60 percent of the country's lawmakers are women — has also endeared him to leaders in Europe and the US. (When US President Donald Trump met with his Rwandan counterpart in 2018, he praised Kagame's "absolutely terrific" leadership and said: "It's a great honor to have you as a friend." )

Additionally, the Kagame government's focus on promotion of new technologies and environmental policy (in 2019, Rwanda became the first African country to introduce a complete ban on all single-use plastics) has led to strong partnerships with economic heavyweights like Germany. The two countries recently created a joint pilot project to introduce electric cars to Rwanda, with plans to expand the electronic automotive industry throughout the region.

To be sure, while some Western leaders have condemned Kagame for his human rights record in the past — with Washington going so far as to cut military aid to Rwanda in 2012, citing the government's support for violent militias in the Democratic Republic of the Congo — most have been willing to look the other way because of the country's economic potential. (In the late1990s, leaders including US President Bill Clinton and the UK's Tony Blair repeatedly praised Kagame's leadership as visionary.)

A complex legacy

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the Russian writer, philosopher and dissident, once said: "The battle between good and evil runs through the heart of every man." While Paul Kagame has pioneered reforms that have helped stabilize a war-torn country, many believe that his oppressive tactics have led to continued pain and suffering, making it hard for Rwanda's post-genocide society to fully heal.

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State of the World

Ian Bremmer, president of Eurasia Group, our parent company, has opened this year’s GZERO Summit with a provocative speech on the near future of international politics. Here are the highlights.

Are the United States and China now locked in a new form of Cold War? Their governments behave as if they are.

But Bremmer isn’t buying it. He’s not predicting that Washington and Beijing will become more cooperative with one another, but that both will be too preoccupied with historic challenges at home in coming years to wage a full-time international struggle.

In Washington, the main worry will be for America’s broken political system. US politics is becoming even more tribalized as TV and online media target politically like-minded consumers with hyperpartisan news coverage. Widening wealth inequality fuels the fire by separating white and non-white, urban and rural, and the more educated from the less educated. Deepening public mistrust of political institutions will fuel future fights over the legitimacy of US elections.

Beijing’s burden centers on how to extend decades of economic gains while moving away from a growth model that no longer works, as higher wages in China and more automation in factories elsewhere cut deeply into China’s manufacturing advantages. China is still a middle-income country. To reach the prosperity level of wealthy nations, it needs 6-7 percent growth for another 20 years.

But China must spend less in coming years to keep giant, deeply indebted companies afloat and more to care for the largest population of elderly people in history. And its leaders must accomplish this at a time when China’s people expect ever-rising levels of prosperity from their government.

The domestic distraction of US and Chinese leaders will create new opportunities for European, Japanese, Canadian, Indian and other political and business leaders to contribute toward international problem-solving. But other governments aren’t the only new players stepping into this power vacuum.

Technology companies are fast becoming important geopolitical actors. We’re entering a world in which economic winners and losers, election outcomes, and national security will depend on choices made by both governments and by the world’s big tech firms.

Bremmer calls this a “techno-polar moment.”

The idea is simple but transformative: Just as governments make the laws that determine what can happen in the physical world, tech companies have final authority in a digital world that’s becoming both more expansive and more immersive.

The biggest tech companies will establish sovereignty by defining the digital space and its boundaries, the algorithms that determine what happens within that space, and the “terms and conditions” that decide who gets to operate in this world.

For skeptics, Bremmer poses this question: Who will do more to influence the outcome of next year’s US midterm congressional elections: The President of the United States or the CEO of Meta? According to Bremmer, since the vote will be influenced by both real-world rules changes and the online flow of information, the answer isn’t obvious.

How will tech companies try to expand their power? Some will behave as “globalists” by trying to reach consumers and influence politics everywhere.

Others will act as “national champions” by aligning with individual governments and their goals.

Still, others will behave as “techno-utopians,” companies that expect historical forces and tech innovations to help them replace governments in important ways.

The relative success of these models over the next decade will decide how government and tech companies share power over the longer-term – and whether democracy or autocracy will have the upper hand.

What’s to be done? “Think adaptation, not surrender,” says Bremmer. Steps can be taken to limit the sometimes negative influence of tech companies in the political lives of democracies. But just as climate change can be limited but not avoided, so we must understand and adapt to a world in which governments and tech companies compete for influence over our lives.

Ian Bremmer's Quick Take:

I want to talk about Russia. And you will, of course, be hearing all of the stories about Russia gearing up for a war with Ukraine, taking more territory. The Americans saying don't do it, but not setting up any clear red lines. What's actually going on here? Well, it's worth going back to the last that Biden and Putin met with each other. That was in Geneva back in mid-June. And you'll remember that Biden snapped at the end of the meeting and the press conference. He was asked by someone, "How come you trust Russia, you trust Putin?" And he said, "I don't trust Putin. We'll see what happens over the coming months." Now at that point, Ukraine was not the big topic that was being discussed.

This was on the back of the attacks, the cyberattacks against Colonial Pipeline in the United States, clearly coming from criminal gangs in Russia, operating with the full knowledge of the Kremlin. And the big takeaway from the meeting, from the summit, from Biden was telling Putin, "look, you need to put a stop to this because if you don't, they're going to be direct consequences." A stop to what? A stop specifically to cyberattacks emanating from Russia, even if not directly from the Kremlin against critical infrastructure in the United States. Not espionage, which the United States does as well, of course. Not attacks, malware attacks against noncritical infrastructure, which is an annoyance, which the American would like to put an end to. But which Biden was not saying was a red line, but specifically critical infrastructure. And indeed, it's been several months now, almost six months and there has been movement. There has been some progress.

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Watch Ian Bremmer's State of the World 2021 speech live on December 6

WATCH LIVE: Join us Dec 6 at 8 pm ET to hear Ian Bremmer's unique perspective on the most pressing geopolitical events shaping politics, business, and society in our "GZERO" world.

Ian's State of the World speech will examine:

  • Are the US and China engaged in a cold war?
  • How powerful have tech companies become on the global stage?
  • Is there hope for the world to unite to fight climate change and other shared challenges?
A Q&A session with Ian follows, moderated by Julia Chatterley, anchor and correspondent at CNN International. Tweet your questions for Ian to @gzeromedia using the hashtag #SOTW.
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