[Sent April 13, 2015]
“So what’s the deal with Rwanda?” is a question you do not hear very often. The last thing most of us heard about the country was back in 1994, when for perhaps the worst hundred days in human history the country’s Hutu majority organized the systematic genocide of almost one million Tutsi Rwandans. But that was (almost exactly) twenty-one years ago. And things have been very interesting in Rwanda since then.
On the Fourth of July, 1994, with hundreds of thousands of Tutsis lying dead in the cities and countryside of the tiny country, a Tutsi RPF rebel commander named Paul Kagame led a ragtag army of genocide survivors in a desperate attack against the Hutu-held capital, Kigali. Outnumbered, outgunned, and opposed by an indifferent or openly hostile West, Kagame defeated the Hutu forces, rescued the remaining Tutsi civilians, and drove the genocidal government out of the country. The RPF, led by Kagame, took over the country, and here the same old story changed. Almost three quarters of the Tutsis in the country were dead: the mothers, fathers, siblings, children of the RPF militia. The nation and the world at large braced themselves for the inevitable revenge massacres. But Kagame demanded an end to the killing. And it ended.
The state of the nation in post-genocide Rwanda was horrible. The new coalition government had to deal with lingering Hutu insurgencies, a mass HIV epidemic spread by war rape, millions of refugees, and a terrified population in one of the poorest countries on the planet. So what happened?
Simply put, to quote Jeffrey Gettleman, “No country in Africa, if not the world, has so thoroughly turned itself around in so short a time.” Paul Kagame, who had been a brilliant general, turned out to be quite a president as well. You can go down the list of Rwanda’s problems and see the effect his technocratic government has had. Poverty? The World Bank’s current lofty development goals seek to build on “remarkable development successes over the last decade which include high growth, rapid poverty reduction and, since 2005, reduced inequality. Between 2001 and 2014, real GDP growth averaged at about 9% per annum.” Kagame has built hundreds of schools to educate the population and championed women’s rights in government and the private sector, and his government has made Rwanda one of the best places on the continent to do business. Health? A new national health insurance program has reduced child mortality by 70% and increased life expectancy by 20 years. A massive malaria eradication campaign has slashed rates by 82%. Inter-ethnic relations? This one is trickier. The government has passed laws to effectively prohibit people from identifying as an ethnic group, but is regularly accused of favoring Tutsis. However, the days of massacres are over: Rwanda is now one of the safest countries in Africa.
As you have probably guessed, there is a catch. Paul Kagame, the frugal man with the modest house who famously stays up until 3 AM every night researching economic and social development, the man who speed-dials the Clintons and Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates to figure out solutions to Rwanda’s problems, is more or less a dictator. Rwanda is technically a democracy, and has a parliament and elected officials and basic rule of law, but twenty-one years after he took power, it also has a President Paul Kagame, and he’s not going anywhere. He sees himself as a man on a mission, and does not tolerate alternate narratives: his government ruthlessly suppresses political dissent and harasses and occasionally imprisons opposition journalists. My view on this, however, is fairly sympathetic. Two decades ago, Rwandans were massacring each other by the hundreds of thousands, and the region is not short on Hutu militias still preaching the genocide gospel. The most important thing for the country is stability and security, and as Aneeth Kaur Hundle writes, “the mode of governance via security politics (the promise of security of bodies in exchange for the compromise of other freedoms and rights) [has] become the norm in post-conflict Rwanda.” (The major donor agencies and development banks agree with me– Hundle calls him “the global elite’s favorite strongman”– but perhaps more cynically: they need a poster boy in order to keep working, and Rwanda, despite the human rights abuses, is a champion in an industry without many.) At any rate, recent history is full of examples of tribal countries that have democratized too quickly. Among the most successful development/democratization stories of the 20th century were South Korea, Singapore, Brazil, and Taiwan, all terribly poor countries with authoritarian governments who slowly built up infrastructure, institutions, and social capital, created world-class economies, and then surrendered the reigns to the people. They’re not calling Rwanda the Singapore of Africa for nothing.
Rwanda, as Taylor Mayol argues, “is an eco-friendly place of hope, innovation, available healthcare, and economic progress, but it is also a place whose government refuses to allow political identities to reflect the diversity of beliefs in Rwandaness.” But that might be exactly what the country needs right now.
In other news, Hillary Clinton tells us that we’re allowed to elect her president now, an Italian surgeon/lunatic announces plans for the world’s first human head transplant, apparently Argentina’s government has nothing better to do than hunt down Justin Bieber, and Florida is filled with baby-eating pythons!
This week’s Uplifting News Story of the Week! A new program to feed homeless and underprivileged families in Minneapolis, courtesy of Ms. Laura Hughes.
1. Sierra Crane-Murdoch, “Sugar Days” for VQR.
This is one of the best essays I have read in a long, long time. Narrative about drifters, “the modern proletariat”, working the sugar beet harvest in North Dakota. Read this.
2. “George Washington’s Rules of Civility” for NPR.
George’s list of 110 social maxims. Fascinating (the obsession with social station!). Most are good advice: “A man ought not to value himself of his achievements or rare qualities of wit; much less of his riches, virtue or kindred.” A few have aged: “Kill no vermin, or fleas, lice, ticks, etc. in the sight of others. . .”
3. Matt Kennard and Claire Provost, “Burma’s Bizarre Capital” for the Pulitzer Center
What happens when you build a giant gleaming new capital city in the middle of the jungle and no one lives there? Weird stuff, apparently.
4. Matthew Cunningham-Cook, David Sirota, and Andrew Perez, “As Colombian Oil Money Flowed To Clintons, State Department Took No Action To Prevent Labor Violations” for the International Business Times.
Great reporting, absolutely infuriating story. Sec. State Hillary suddenly cared a lot less about labor issues in Colombia after her foundation got a multi-million dollar donation from oil executives. Makes me wonder what else was in those deleted emails. I would think this would disqualify someone from being president, but what do I know?
5. Oliver Burkeman, “David Brooks: I’m paid to be a narcissistic blowhard” in the Guardian.
Interview. America’s least favorite weekly columnist knows it. I’ve always liked David Brooks. I feel like there’s something romantic about his dedication to holding opinions that make him culturally irrelevant. And this is an illuminating piece. “But, you know – you should be a little sadder, sometimes.”
1. Father John Misty does “Chateau Lobby #4” for WFUV in New York.
2. Gary Clark, Jr. sings “Travis County” on Austin City Limits.
3. My future wife Caroline Rose, “Blood on Your Bootheels” for a One On One Session at The Public Theater, NYC.