A strong man building strong institutions in a weak society?

The debate about a possible third term for President Paul Kagame which may happen a generation after the end of the genocide raises the question of where we come from, where we are now and what needs to be done to reach our goals.

The debate about a possible third term for President Paul Kagame which may happen a generation after the end of the genocide raises the question of where we come from, where we are now and what needs to be done to reach our goals. A proper understanding of some underlying and enduring forces that shape our politics and social interactions compelling show us the route to take coming 2017.

A more miraculous recovery than you may think


On her last visit, Christine Lagarde, managing director of the IMF praised ‘Rwanda’s economic miracle’. Many people are not aware of the full extent of this miracle because of a misleading optical effect. The horrors of genocide and the destruction it caused obstruct the fact that Rwanda before 1994 was not an ordinary poor African country.The economic, social and political devastation of the country was much deeper and culminated in the state starting to unravel effectively in 1984 before the total collapse of 1994.


Adults, men and women started dying in big numbers in 1984 because of diseases, hunger and violence. After a long period of increase, in 1984 life expectancy dropped sharply to reach 33 years in 1990. This was the lowest rate ever recorded in Africa since 1960, lower than any country at war or even a failed state..


The drop in life expectancy was not due to an increase in infant mortality, nor was it caused by an HIV outbreak (5% nationally) but by a sudden increase of adults deaths.

Between 1984 and 1990, the country experienced a famine which caused a thousand deaths; food shortages were almost permanent, especially in the Center, South and West of the country. The Rwandan countryside had become unsafe with very high levels of violence.

With 1830 calories per person per day, Rwanda’s nutritional levels were well below the minimum required by international standards of 2100 calories. This average hid deep regional differences: while some communes located in the less populated eastern part of the country reached 2,086 calories per head, others as in the prefecture of Gikongoro - epicenter of all violence since 1963 - reached only 657 calories.

A study by former minister of agriculture James Gasana shows that no commune with a level of calorie intake higher than 1,500 per person per day was the site of the massacres of Tutsis of 1991-1992 which preceded the genocide.

The feeling of an approaching perdition spread within the population with the proliferation of millenarian sects, prophets and apparitions of the Virgin often predicting an imminent disaster. The development model with the main horizon of improving subsistence farming supposed to reflect the values ​​of modesty of the Rwandan peasantry not only maintained the country in deep underdevelopment but collapsed. The causes of this collapse were a confluent of factors: repeated bad weather, plant diseases and fall of international prices for coffee, tea and tin. But the most important problem was the strong population growth, rapid land fragmentation, lack of inputs and subsequent decreasing yields.

Peter Uvin reports that "food production was slowing as dramatically as the population was increasing .... In the late 1980s Rwanda's foreign residents were speculating on a catastrophe before the end of the century. Would it be famine, which struck the Rwandan southwest in 1989, or AIDS with a 33 percent infection rate in urban areas in 1990? Bloody conflict arrived first."

A USAID study shows that in 1990 Rwanda is the poorest country in the world. But that was not new; in 1976 for example, it was the third poorest in the world. In 1964, when the country is experiencing its first acts of genocide in Gikongoro prefecture, Rwandans on average received only 73% minimum required; this time only the Papuans of New Guinea were hungrier than them. Thus, the ranks of the ethnic cleansers of the 1959 revolution were largely made ​​up of people severely suffering from hunger.

Much of Rwanda’s political development must be seen in the context of explosive distributional tensions for scarce resources that produced a zero-sum game, a winner-takes-all political culture. Whether we consider the first or the second republic, each had developed an exclusionary process in increasingly tight concentric circles, which resulted in diminished social base, and finally doomed them.

Each republic set out to exclude the Tutsi from the enjoyment of their citizen rights, and then continued by imposing quotas on public resource allocations for Hutus, based on their regional and locality affiliations.

In large part, the genocide was caused by the refusal to accept Tutsi from inside and those from outside back into the national community for ideological but also for socio-economic motives.

The post-genocide recovery therefore required rebuilding the economic, social and political foundations from the ground up, in a country that had historically failed to sustain itself peacefully.

We have never gotten it as right as now

Over the past fifteen years per capita income has more than doubled in constant dollars. More recently over a million people have pulled out of the national poverty line and the country is expected to reach almost all of the MDGs. The country is modernizing and it has adopted an economic and social trajectory that is gradually pulling it out of the severe poverty and underdevelopment trap.

However, as spectacular as it may sound, Rwanda’s socio-economic development is still fragile. It has been made possible in a large part thanks to the generous international assistance the country has received over the last fifteen years.

The country has not yet managed to change some basic parameters of its economy. If the business environment is much improved, costs of doing business are still very high. Transportation, electricity, land scarcity and weak human resources are still severe constraints for the development of the private sector and the spread of economic growth.

These impediments are linked with the hard factors of our physical environment, namely: our landlockedness, the small size of the territory, lack of natural resources and the deep structural underdevelopment.

In spite of these limits, Rwandans never had a better situation than now. But more importantly independent surveys show that many think that their personal and the country’s wellbeing are improving.

In spite of the constraints, in a rather unique fashion in Africa, Rwanda’s recovery was made possible by trying to optimize the few factors it could have sway over. The miraculous recovery is mainly due to remarkable efforts of self-discipline, transforming collective behavior and enablers such as institutions. The latest Africa Competitiveness Report 2015 is instructive in this perspective. In terms of competitiveness, Rwanda with Mauritius and South Africa are at South East Asia countries’ level.

The basic pillar of competitiveness that distinguishes Rwanda from the rest of all Africa is the functioning of its institutions. However, while Rwanda is in 18th place worldwide in terms of institutions, it finds itself in 105th place for infrastructure – an essential element to overcome the constraints of our physical environment - and only the 122nd out of 144 for higher education and training. Rwanda made its best scores in: participation of women in the workforce (3/144); reduced wastefulness of government spending (4/144), lack of favoritism in decisions of government officials (16/144), reduced diversion of public funds (19/144).

The paradox of Rwandan institutions is in the quality of their performance and the perception by many Rwandans of their fragility. Many think that the good performance of Rwandan institutions or the country as a whole is due to the personal action of President Kagame, beyond his party the RPF or the government he has led for fifteen years. Recent history seems to explain this perception.

Paul Kagame’s political rise and the transformation of Rwanda

There are many examples of the personal involvement of President Kagame in radically changing intractable situations. Here is maybe the more consequential; it changed radically the course of the reconstruction process and even today still profoundly informs the country’s politics. It began with a 'revolt of RPF cadres ' between 1997 and 1998. At the time the country was under the post-genocide government of national unity, deeply divided by ideological, political and security issues. Poverty was immense. Between 1997 and 2006, Rwanda, together with few other African countries, were last on the ‘freedom from corruption’ indicator of the Economic Freedom Index.

In the aftermath of the genocide a looting practice (sarcastically called kubohoza - liberating), coupled with survival, crises of all kinds were almost daily realities. Soon after a new social order began to stratify; an elite emerged, some engaging in accumulation practices that shocked public opinion. The speed of social differentiation, spite and envy it aroused but also the corruption and depredations that some leaders were engaged in caused a crisis that strongly shocked the RPF from within, with profound and lasting consequences.

We are in 1997 when a dispute on governance issues begins, virulently reflected in newspapers close to the RPF and targeting the party. Some newspaper articles denounce widespread corruption, nepotism and arrogance, calling it ‘a method of government.’ They explain that the power sharing system was used as a cover by cliques utuzu – ‘small houses’ in reference to Habyarimana inner circle - in different political parties of the government coalition to indulge in patronage and rampant corruption. Posing the question of where RPF’s revolutionary ambitions have gone, these articles explain that the party was hijacked by a group that uses the restriction on political parties’ activities to avoid accountability.

An article entitled ‘The RPF has reneged’ asserts that RPF’s revolution failed because ‘once we came to power, we imitated the methods of Government that we fought yesterday’. The author denounces extortion, corruption, nepotism and cronyism as the ills that plague Rwandan society. He raises the question of whether he and his comrades had fought Habyarimana and his entourage only to take their place.

The unease expressed itself both from in and outside the RPF. From 1995 throughout the period of disorder that followed the end of the genocide, various bodies of the party condemned the ongoing misconduct of some of its leaders but limited it in general terms.

On June 5, 1996 RPF’s National Executive Committee (NEC) decided to devote its meeting to the self-appraisal of the movement, by examining the behavior of its members and the functioning of its governing bodies, namely: the NEC and the Political Bureau.

Participants listed at length but in general terms the misdeeds of members and leaders of the party, as well as the party's institutional weaknesses. At the level of individual behavior the following were presented:  carelessness, arrogance and contempt, racketeering, corruption, theft, murder, the neglect of survivors, ethnic sectarianism, factionalism, and nepotism, among other problems.

At first, RPF’s leadership tried to conduct internal institutional reforms with the elaboration of the leadership code of conduct, the establishment of a disciplinary committee and an inspectorate of the party. At the state level, the party tried to accelerate the creation of the National Tender Board, the Rwanda Revenue Authority and the Office of the Auditor General.

A two steps political clarification

After two years of fruitless discussions, the reform through institutional channels favored by the party leadership led to the calling of a special consultative assembly in lieu of RPF congress which was held from 14 to 15 February 1998. This quasi-congress called Kicukiro-I reached two important results: the first was the election of new NEC and Political bureau - bodies that had been virtually unchanged since before April 1994. Vice-president and Defense Minister Gen. Paul Kagame who was serving at the time as RPF’s vice-president, was elected president of the party. Four out of seven commissioners of the NEC, historical figures of the movement, some assuming ministerial positions, were not re-elected. But this renewal of the party leadership was done without discussing the performance of individual leaders that were nominated as candidates for the available positions.

Thus, on the list of grievances and recommendations that had been compiled for the next big meeting, ten months later: Kicukiro-II, the cadres who were consulted to prepare this second meeting, feed backing on Kicukiro-I, deplored the ‘lack of information concerning the intervening changes in governing bodies, particularly on possible failures of those who had been voted out of office.’

The second result of the meeting was the decision to initiate as soon as possible in-depth discussions with RPF’s partners, other political parties and representatives of different sectors of society to establish a minimum common political/policy program in order to ‘begin a veritable socioeconomic transformation of the country’. Three weeks later, the Urugwiro village discussions started, they lasted nine months and initiated transformative policies such as Gacaca, Vision 2020, the major orientations of the 2003 constitution, etc. 

The election of the new RPF’s leadership did not defuse tensions. In July 1998 a newspaper wrote: “A mafia has infested the state:  it has infiltrated certain politicians and high-ranking military officials; it has been introduced by businessmen who are experts in the embezzlement of state property in collaboration with people in power.  These all-powerful, unquestionable people constitute the pillars of the akazu.”

 A newspaper’s article in December 1998 wrote: “You swallow up the property of the state like mercenaries preparing to return where they came from, fighting among themselves to get the largest scrap.”

Still in December, another newspaper, returning to the subject of leadership changes in the RPF, wrote, “Since its establishment eight months ago, certain party members maintain that this new executive committee had not changed much of anything.” Calling out the new party president Paul Kagame, the author wrote: “if he did not abdicate like the others, since he had accepted to lead the party he has to actually do it and fully shoulder his responsibilities”.

In spite of their sensationalist tone, these newspapers relayed the sentiments of many people who thought that the country had reached an impasse, expressed the fear of stagnation in extremely difficult living conditions, and that this frustration would lead to social unrest, even to violence.

Feeling that the party's internal legitimacy crisis was reaching a critical threshold, the new direction decided to drain the abscess by organizing a big meeting during which everything or almost everything would be put on the table.


The meeting of the extended Political Bureau commonly called Kicukiro-II took place on December 26 to 27, 1998. Seeking to get to the bottom of things, the secretary general of the party insisted on organizing preceding consultations led by task forces, during which ideas, criticisms and wishes of party members were registered.  A summary of the consultation was read during the meeting and it recalibrated the discussion from the bureaucratic straitjacket it had started with, and focused on cases of injustice, abuse of power and corruption.

The discussions were marked by remarkable openness, but also by a degree of restraint from personal attacks.  The ordinary party cadres in attendance continued to share their criticisms with other party members in conversations, some names coming up frequently as corrupt. The meeting, which spanned two full days, ended in an apparently friendly atmosphere.

In the course of the discussions RPF’s chairman Kagame observed that accusations of corruption often concerned only modest assets; to him, this revealed the depth of the serious poverty with which the country was struggling. Responding to newspapers accusations that he did not respond quickly enough to the deteriorating situation he explained that his strategy to combat corruption involved three phases: establishing institutions of accountability and transparency, building awareness of corruption, and then applying severe sanctions, beginning with party members.

The final resolutions of the extended Political Bureau meeting validated the principal criticisms of bad governance within the party, naming: corruption, patronage, nepotism, embezzlement, arrogance, abuse of power, and intimidation.

Last statements coming as much from participants as from party leaders, reflected a feeling of consensus over the unequivocal condemnation of bad practices, and that significant change was upcoming. 

A few days after Kicukiro-II, a newspaper summed-up that feeling, taking note of the “outpouring of truths with unpredictable consequences” and used the line most often quoted, in which General Kagame declared,  “if necessary I will put my boots back on and return to the bush to fight against the akazu.”

A called for centralization of power

The focus on the misconduct of RPF’s leadership did not ignore other partners in government who acted in the same manner.  For many RPF cadres any change in the country's governance, and the beginning of a socio-economic transformation required significant personnel and policy changes. 

To change these things, RPF’s cadres made their demands clear to the president of the party, General Paul Kagame, asking him to take the necessary measures, first in assuming total responsibility of leading the party, and through it, the country.

The political consequences of the extended Political Bureau meeting of Kicukiro-II were not long in coming. A cabinet reshuffle took place in February 1999, affecting RPF ministers first; many historical members of the party lost their post. Other leaders from the RPF and other political parties would follow, leaving most RPF and government powers concentrated around the then vice-president Paul Kagame before he became president in 2000. At the same time in a decade (1998-2008) long concentrated effort was dedicated to institutions creation and strengthening.

This political struggle within the RPF, initially opposed part of the political and military leadership on the one hand, and party’s cadres on the other. Its political implications and effects would be felt long after.

The dissent of the four founders of the Rwanda National Congress, namely: Kayumba, Karegeya, Gahima and Rudasingwa, is to be situated in this context. This conflict mainly led to a fundamental redirection of the party and the country. Many people in and outside the RPF credit the success of the radical reforms on president Kagame personally. 

The intensity of his personal involvement, and the magnitude of that change he contributed to achieving, may be the reasons why many people still think that the spirit, values and resolve of the new dispensation are perhaps not yet sufficiently institutionalized, both within the RPF and the Rwandan state; especially as pressures from different strata of society for relaxing the policy of public probity continues to be felt.

A number of Rwandans see the next frontier of the country’s development in the completion of a number of major infrastructural projects, namely: the railway connecting the country to the Indian Ocean; the regional pipeline; the Bugesera airport and the electricity supply from the Ethiopian Millennium Dam.

Others see the next stage of development of the country as the attainment of the country to middle-income status. These are people who believe that these advancements are at hand and achievable. The next five years are critical, considering the level of political will among leaders of Northern Corridor countries.

Today, Rwanda is still far from the lowest threshold for middle-income countries it but is steadily approaching it. Considering our peculiar sociopolitical situation and how disproportionately the country’s progress and social peace depend on high governance standards, these people prefer not taking any risk, and keep president Kagame in power in 2017 to complete the long fought for transformation of the country.

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