By David Himbara

Kagame proclaimed in 2000 that he would transform Rwanda into a middle-income economy in two decades. But in 2020, the International Monetary Fund classified Rwanda among the world’s poorest and most vulnerable countries alongside Afghanistan, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Haiti.

As I often point out, for Western governments, financiers and opinion leaders, Rwanda’s strongman Paul Kagame offers a Faustian bargain: Overlook my brutal behaviour, and I will offer you a model for economic growth in an African nation. As with Dr. Faustus, who sold his soul to Satan, Kagame’s admirers will be bitterly disappointed. While sacrificing human rights on the altar of economic growth, Kagame is delivering neither democracy nor prosperity.

The Rwanda head of state, Paul Kagame acquired a reputation of a visionary who transformed Rwanda from a poor country into the Singapore of Africa. Kagame is the leading promoter of this economic mirage. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, he claimed that Rwanda is now an African economic lion following the example of South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore nicknamed the ‘Asian tigers.’ In Kagame’s own words, “in our pursuit of progress, we have of course looked to East Asia’s so-called ‘tiger’ economies for inspiration.” Bill Clinton is another promoter of this fantasy. According to Clinton, “Kagame has forged a strong, unified and growing nation with the potential to become a model for the rest of Africa and the world.”

Embarrassingly, Rwanda remains the poorest country in the East African Community sub-region, except for the war-torn economies of Burundi and South Sudan. Globally, Rwanda is the 12th poorest country per the percentage of the population living on less than US$1.90 a day. To make matters worse, in 2020, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) classified Rwanda among the world’s “poorest and most vulnerable states” that include failed states such as Afghanistan, Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Haiti.

The fiasco of Rwanda’s Vision 2020

Launched by Kagame in 2000, Rwanda’s Vision 2020 was a master plan for turning Rwanda into a middle-income economy with a GDP per capita of US$900 by the year 2020. In 2012, Vision 2020 was amended – Rwanda’s GDP per capita would be US$1,240 by 202o. Rwanda Vision 2020 had six pillars as follows:

  1. The capable state. According to Vision 2020, Rwanda’s developmental state would ensure good governance including accountability, transparency and efficiency. The Rwanda State would be respectful of democratic norms, commit to the rule of law and “the protection of human rights in particular.”
  2. Human resource development and creation of a knowledge-based economy. Reforms in education and health services would create a productive workforce which is “essential for Rwanda to become a sophisticated knowledge-based economy.”
  3. Private sector-led development. A viable private sector would be the growth engine of the economy driven by a vibrant middle class of entrepreneurs, which would “help develop and embed the principles of democracy.”
  4. Infrastructure development. World-class infrastructure was considered vital to lessen the costs of doing business in Rwanda. Because Rwanda is landlocked a regional rail extension Tanzania and an extension to the Uganda-Kenyan railway systems to connect to the seaports of Kenya and Tanzania were fundamental.
  5. Productive high value and market-oriented agriculture. Rwanda was to “to continue with the implementation of aggressive transformational policies that move towards a modern and more productive agriculture.”
  6. Regional and international integration. Regional economic integration was considered to be a crucial element of achieving Vision 2020. This meant pursuing an open and liberal trade regime that encouraged foreign direct investment and promoted competitive enterprises, exports and domestic entrepreneurship.
  7. Cross-cutting issues of Vision 2020. Alongside the 6 pillars were three cross-cutting policy priorities, namely, gender equality, environmental protection, and robust promotion of science and technology.

Rwanda’s middle-income economy never arrived. By 2019, Rwanda’s GDP per capita stood at US$820 – far less than the failed state of Haiti whose GDP per capita was US$1,272. As noted above, Rwanda was the poorest country in its sub-region of the East African Community, except for the war-torn countries of Burundi and South Sudan. Comparatively, 56.5 percent of the Rwandan population was still living on less than US$1.90 a day, against 49.4 percent in Tanzania, 41.3 percent in Uganda, and 37.1 percent in Kenya.

The outcomes of each of the six pillars of Rwanda Vision 2020 were pitiful, especially Pillar 1 of building a capable state that is accountable, respectful of democratic processes, and committed to the rule of law including protection of human rights. Rwanda had by 2020 become a totalitarian state that committed all manner of atrocities at home and abroad. In its 2021 periodic review of Rwanda’s human rights record, the US Mission to International Organizations in Geneva made the following statements about Rwanda’s horrendous human rights violations:

“We recommend that Rwanda:

1. Promote the right to freedom of expression by ending detentions and harassment of members of the media and civil society for their reporting.

2. Independently and transparently investigate credible allegations of unlawful or arbitrary arrests and detentions, killings, and enforced disappearances of human rights defenders, political opponents, and journalists, prosecuting alleged perpetrators under the law.

3. Enforce the protection of all persons’ rights to life and liberty by strengthening the independence of the justice system and ensuring no one is convicted on the basis of information extracted under torture or duress.”

Pillar 2 of building human capital was embarrassing. In the World Bank’s Human Capital Index, Rwanda is ranked 142nd out of 157 countries. Rwanda has the worst ranking in Human Capital Index in the East Africa Community – Burundi which was affected by war in the past two decades has a better ranking at 138. In Pillar 3 of private sector development, crony capitalism is the order of the day. The US$500 million ruling party’s business empire, Crystal Ventures Ltd, dominates Rwanda’s economy. The Economist called the Rwandan Patriotic Front which rules Rwanda the “party of business with investments in everything from furniture to finance.” Meanwhile, infrastructure, modern agriculture, and regional integration did not materialize – the railway lines connecting Rwanda to the seaports of Mombasa in Kenya and Dar Salaam in Tanzania remain on the drawing board.

Perhaps, regional integration is Kagame’s biggest failure. Contrary to connecting Rwanda to regional economic institutions, infrastructure and markets, Kagame instead isolated Rwanda from its neighbours. He closed the Rwanda-Uganda border in 2019 over accusations of supporting political groups opposed to his regime. Uganda is, of course, the transit route through which Rwanda accesses the Kenyan markets and the seaport of Mombasa via which over half of Rwanda’s exports and imports to global markets pass. Meanwhile, Rwandan business people face a daunting challenge when seeking to travel to South Africa which is the continent’s most sophisticated economic market. South Africa recalled its ambassador, closed its visa office in Rwanda, and expelled Rwandan diplomats as far back as 2014. South Africa did this in response to Rwanda’s relentless sponsorship of assassins that murder prominent Rwandan refugees who flee to South Africa from their homeland’s violence against its own citizens.

Lastly, there is the case of Rwanda’s other neighbour, the Democratic Republic of Congo. The reports of the World Bank, the National Bank of Rwanda and the UN Group of Experts show a troubling fact – Rwanda continues to plunder DR Congo’s mineral resources. The World Bank’s January 2021 Update indicates that Rwanda exported US$522 million worth of gold in the first nine months of 2020. According to the National Bank of Rwanda, while Rwandan exports fell sharply in 2019/2020, gold exports shot up by an extraordinary 754.6 percent. And where does Rwanda get such enormous amount of gold to export? The June 2, 2020 UN Group of Experts’ Report connects gold smuggling from DRC to Rwanda. So much for Paul Kagame’s socio-economic miracle.