There are two misconceptions about Rwanda, which I intend to revisit in this article, and which dominate Western discourse when discussing the Rwandan issues.
The first concerns leadership – often portrayed in a negative light – and the second is the tension between democracy and autocracy.
With regard to the first point, Rwanda’s leadership is unique among African nations in four principle manners. Among these is foresight in all of its planning processes and actual delivery on its promises. Second is emphasis on benefitting the collective rather than individual.
Third, national leadership values ideas and is visionary; our leaders are rooted in reality and not in blind ideology. Finally, Rwandan leadership places an enormous sense of accountability on the people, community, society and even on history. It is fundamentally flawed to discuss Rwandan leadership without taking into context these elements.
This takes me to the second point: the tension between democracy and autocracy. I have always made clear the danger of debating these words in the abstract. However, using these terms as the respective poles of political governance, I shall make the following observations:
First, this debate is not new, it began no later than the 3rd century BC.
Plato considered this in his book, The Republic, concluding that neither extreme – democracy nor autocracy – worked, and it was thus best that nations were governed by a Philosopher-King.
Speaking through Henry V in the 17th century AD, Shakespeare said, “So little does the peasant understand how many sleepless nights the King undergoes to keep the very peace that the peasant so much enjoys.” In the 18th century, Thomas Hobbes argued in Leviathan that men forego certain individual rights to a sovereign in return for collective security and safety.
The point is, both the ruled and the rulers have their respective part to play and the debate as to the exact nature of that role has raged for more than 2,000 years, without conclusion.
Second, I doubt that the debate will be settled. In times of dire crisis, when a society needs collective action to secure its future, a stronger hand in leadership is needed. It is by no means certain that strong and good leaders will automatically be produced in such times.
If no such good leader comes forth, that society or civilisation could come to an end; history is full of civilizations and nations that have come to be extinct.
If, however, a society is fortunate to have strong leaders step forth, it goes on to prosper. When the country begins to prosper, its people then expect leaders to return their civic rights. It is, therefore, not surprising that Western democracy took root amidst the economic prosperity and social stability in the 18th to 20th centuries.
In short, optimal governance depends on context and the challenges faced by the society in question at that given time; it is a dynamic equilibrium that shifts between democracy, with a high degree of civic rights, and autocracy in times of extreme crisis. However, there is no guarantee that either form of governance can ensure the survival or success of the particular society.
With that in mind, the great mystery to me is why some liberals, who champion tolerance and diversity, cannot accept Rwanda as a different society. But these liberals have also come to see the world in black and white terms: free or unfree, open or closed, totalitarian or democratic.
To challenge this black and white perspective, it is important that Rwandans write their own history so as to provide a non-Western worldview in a world dominated by a Western Weltanschauung.
Of course, Rwanda is neither a utopia nor a paradise. It has flaws. But neither is it the nightmarish society portrayed by westerners and other opportunists. The simple reality is that Rwanda is different.
And this is essentially why arguments from most critics should not convince anyone; instead they should walk the streets of Rwanda, safe at any time of day or night, and witness firsthand the unique story of Rwanda which, despite its shortcomings, stands as a monument of human achievement.
Mr Mugabo is a Rwandan based in Singapore