Rwanda might just be the classical case of the unusual combination of flashing lights and rattling chains.

President Paul Kagame has created one of the most impressive states in modern Africa. With his economic shrewdness and exceptional networking skills, he has managed to gain world-wide respect for the success that Rwanda is. It is an exceptional case of how $1 billion of aid can be used sustainably to develop a nation. Rwanda is also an extra-ordinary example of how a polarised society can be united for the greater good of a country. However, do not be blinded by the flashing lights; not all that glitters is gold. Rwanda might just be the classical case of the unusual combination of flashing lights and rattling chains.

An economy brimming with promise

Rwanda’s economy is one of the fastest growing economies in Central Africa and when one factors in its dark history, the growth might just be the most impressive in Africa. The country’s whole aim of continued success finds its expression in the “Vision 2020” strategy. The goal is to transform the country from a low-income agriculture-based economy to a knowledge-based, service-oriented economy with a middle-income country by 2020. The government is using the medium term strategy, the second Economic Development and Poverty Reduction Strategy (EDPRS 2) to pursue the Vision 2020 long-term goals. Rwanda’s Gross Domestic Product growth averaged 8% between 2001 and 2015. So impressive to the world has the country’s economic and social progress been that 30-40% of its budget is donor-funded. This, of course, is not sustainable in the long run but it is an indicator of the faith people have in the Rwandan restoration.

Rwanda’s development has not been one dimensional, as socially, the country has managed to make strides not short of impressive. The World Bank says, “The poverty rate dropped from 59% in 2001 to 45% in 2011 while inequality measured by the Gini coefficient reduced from 0.52 in 2006 to 0.49 in 2011.” (However, 63% of the population still lives on less than $1.25 a day.) Rwanda is the leader in female representation in parliamentary seats with a hefty 64%. Such achievements cannot simply be pushed under a rag and forgotten. Rwanda is doing the African continent proud.

A repressive political space

On Rwanda, Human Rights Watch did not mince its words. In a 2014 article; Lifting the lid on Rwandan Repression, the group said, “Rwanda under Kagame has no tolerance for dissent of political opposition. Years of state intimidation and infiltration have emasculated Rwandan civil society.” The article also reported that Rwandan media was dominated by government views and scores of journalists had fled the country, unable to report freely and fearful for their safety. The same goes for opponents of the regime like Kayumba Nyamwasa who was lucky to tell the story after an attempt on his life in South Africa. Four Rwandans were convicted for the attempt which was regarded a politically motivated attack. Patrick Karegeya, another critic of the Rwandan government was found murdered in his hotel room in South Africa in January 2014. In response, many government officials used strong language to brand Karegeya as a traitor who deserved no pity. The Prime Minister, Pierre Damien Habumuremyi tweeted, “Betraying citizens and their country that made you a man shall always bear consequences to you.” Did the consequences include death?

The Minister of Defence, James Kabarebe, in a speech in Gisenyi, then said, “When you choose to be a dog, you die like a dog, and the cleaners will wipe away the trash so that it does not stink for them. Actually, such consequences are faced by those who have chosen such a path”

In fact, there have been lower points in Rwandan democratic history with the death of a independent journalist and an opposition party vice-president and the arrests of several other opponents in the run up to the 2010 elections being one of the darkest moments. It is not just Kagame who has progressively led an African nation albeit in a totalitarian system. Leaders like Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia and to an extent, Isaias Afewerki of Eritrea (before running down the country to what New York Times called the North Korea of Africa)

The moot point: Development versus Democracy

There has been a claim that democracy is directly related to economic development. If this is true, then Kagame and a few other leaders are exceptions to the rule. Joann Weiner, who worked as an economist at the U.S. Treasury Department says, “Thus, for now, the economic and political gains in Rwanda seem to outweigh the concerns about people disappearing and journalists being stifled.”

The donor community ignores the repression while countries in the West issue half-hearted warnings and criticisms. For their part, most Rwandans seem content with the improving community. What is freedom with an empty stomach? This reasoning is setting low standards for Africa. Why cannot the continent have progressive but democratic leadership?President Kagame may have exceptional skills when it comes to handling the economy but that cannot justify the repression and intolerance of dissension. A spade should be called a spade!