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Rwanda is transforming and growing — but at what cost?

Rwanda's post-genocide transformation has been remarkable, but uneven.
Jacques Nkinzingabo for NPR
Rwanda's post-genocide transformation has been remarkable, but uneven.

KIGALI, Rwanda — Staring at the skyline in this city, you can't miss the tiered dome of the Kigali Convention Center. At night, its blue, yellow and green lights can be seen from the surrounding hilltops.

Completed in 2016, it's known to be the most expensive building on the African continent, and a project that's special to Rwandan President Paul Kagame.

Staff inside the complex say he comes by "every day" to check on the progress. While that's almost certainly an exaggeration, the building is one of the most visible signs of the ways in which the country has changed since Kagame came to power in the years after the brutal genocide shocked the world.

Yet that transformation has been uneven, happening under the tight rule of a president who faces little opposition. And it prompts many questions, including: what type of leader is needed to help a country grow and heal from such a devastating past?

The Kigali Convention Center is an imposing structure.
/ Edwin Remsberg / VWPics/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
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Edwin Remsberg / VWPics/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
The Kigali Convention Center is an imposing structure.

Development. Innovation. Growth.

Last month, Rwanda marked 30 years since the genocide in which nearly one million people, most of them ethnic Tutsis, were killed. As many as a quarter million Rwandan civilians took part in the killings. Neighbors brutally attacked their neighbors.

As world leaders descended on Kigali to mark the moment, Kagame said that Rwanda has had a long journey, but "the tremendous progress of our country is plain to see and it is the result of the choices we made together to resurrect our nation."

Tourism is a key part of Rwanda's development plan.<em></em>
/ Jacques Nkinzingabo for NPR
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Jacques Nkinzingabo for NPR
Tourism is a key part of Rwanda's development plan.
Rwanda is hoping to draw more tourists to the country.
/ Jacques Nkinzingabo for NPR
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Jacques Nkinzingabo for NPR
Rwanda is hoping to draw more tourists to the country.

Today, the country projects an image of post-genocide harmony. Ethnicities are no longer on ID cards and are not publicly discussed. Some of those who survived the killing now liveside-by-side with perpetrators.

And Rwanda has made other measurable gains. Life expectancy is up, as is tourism – which these days makes up 11% of the country's GDP. Tourists come to see the famous gorillas, and high-end packages to trek with them can cost thousands of dollars a day.

Tourism has become so entrenched in the redevelopment plan of the country under Kagame that the beckoning logo of the #VisitRwanda ad campaign is now on the jerseys of European soccer teams, like Arsenal in London.

Then there are the luxury hotels, tech startups and a new stadium that hosts an offshoot of the NBA, the Basketball Africa League.

For Albert Rudatsimburwa — a political analyst who lived abroad during the genocide — Kagame is the catalyst for all that Rwanda has achieved.

"When I came back, it was joy and tears," he said. "Joy because it had been a journey to witness the rebirth of a nation – that is the most incredible part."

Albert Rudatsimburwa says president Kagame has done a good job.
/ Jacques Nkinzingabo for NPR
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Jacques Nkinzingabo for NPR
Albert Rudatsimburwa says president Kagame has done a good job.

Rudatsimburwa lives just a few doors down from Kagame and says the president is a skilled leader. He ticks through some of Kagame's accomplishments since coming to power in 2000 – "big steps," he calls them – like the number of women in governmentleadership, the broad medical care coverage, and the country's massive internet connectivity.

"Even the gorillas can take selfies and post them on Instagram in the middle of the jungle" he jokes.

Rudatsimburwa is not alone in crediting Kagame and the ruling political party, the Rwandan Patriotic Front [RPF]. Kagame enjoys massive support in the country and has already been elected three times.

Among the most touted achievements is how Rwanda is now home to a number of tech startups who see it as a fertile ground for innovation.

Zipline workers pack and send drones off to hospitals.
/ Jacques Nkinzingabo for NPR
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Jacques Nkinzingabo for NPR
Zipline workers pack and send drones off to hospitals.

About an hour south of the capitol, a company called Zipline operates a fleet of drones that carry blood and other medical supplies to health facilities across the country, where they are in short supply. One study showed that drone blood deliveries reduced in-hospital maternal deaths from postpartum hemorrhage by more than half.

Abdoul Salam Nizeyimana, a genocide survivor, was Zipline's first Rwandan employee, and says the government prioritizes innovation and is "willing to take bets" on new technologies.

"When you survive an atrocity, it's like you're given a second chance to live," he said of his life post-genocide.

The drone program is just one example of the country's – and this president's – search for development and advancement, which feels messianic at times. Another is "Umuganda" – a nationwide holiday on the last Saturday of each month that celebrates community service projects, like road cleaning.

A Zipline worker carries part of a drone from storage over to the belt where the drone will be sent out.
/ Jacques Nkinzingabo for NPR
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Jacques Nkinzingabo for NPR
A Zipline worker carries part of a drone from storage over to the belt where the drone will be sent out.
Zipline packages are collected after being received by nurses at Kabgayi Hospital in the Southern Province of Rwanda.
/ Jacques Nkinzingabo for NPR
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Jacques Nkinzingabo for NPR
Zipline packages are collected after being received by nurses at Kabgayi Hospital in the Southern Province of Rwanda.

The fact that all Rwandans are required by law to participate gets at some of the tension in this nation, post-genocide. Read one way, Umuganda is a remarkable act of unity and shared responsibility, which countries like the U.S. couldn't fathom outside of war or national disaster.

But flip that coin, and you get a picture of strongman authoritarianism, cultish devotion to the ruling party, and a series of draconian punishments for those who dare step out of line.

Repression. Arrests. Silence.

"Rwanda has made some really striking and remarkable progress in terms of economic gains, in terms of access to health, in terms of education promotion," says Lewis Mudge, the Central Africa director for Human Rights Watch.

"Unfortunately, those changes have not been matched in terms of affording people basic rights: civil and political rights, rights to express themselves freely, whether that be in the press, or at the ballot box. Rights to challenge the government."

Mudge describes democracy in Rwanda as a "performance," and that political opposition is virtually nonexistent. His view is that Rwandans want to vote "in an election in which it's not just ticking the box for Paul Kagame because they have to."

President Paul Kagame delivers his speech during the commemorations of the 30th anniversary of the 1994 Rwandan genocide in April.
Luis Tato / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
President Paul Kagame delivers his speech during the commemorations of the 30th anniversary of the 1994 Rwandan genocide in April.

Mudge knows the county well. He lived and worked in Rwanda for four years, but says he was kicked out by the government in 2018 – making him the third Human Rights Watch researcher to have been ejected from Rwanda in the past decade.

It's hard to find anyone living inside Rwanda who will offer even faint criticism of Kagame. One of the few who does speak openly is Victoire Ingabire Umohoza, an opposition leader in Kigali.

"Kagame was the strongman that we needed after the genocide," she said. "But today we need a fresh perspective, a fresh blood and fresh new leadership in our country."

Umohoza challenged Kagame in the 2010 election, but was arrested and imprisoned on terrorism and conspiracy charges. She spent eight years in prison, five in solitary confinement. Umohoza was pardoned by Kagame in 2018 and released from prison, but she can't leave the country, she says, even to visit her husband in the Netherlands who is very sick.

"The government refuses to give me authorization to visit him," she said.

Critics of president Kagame say opposition is quashed until his rule.
/ Jacques Nkinzingabo for NPR
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Jacques Nkinzingabo for NPR
Critics of president Kagame say opposition is quashed until his rule.

And she was barred from challenging Kagame in national elections this year. "So that is really the problem we have in our country ... if [citizens] dare to say something to challenge the authorities, they are labeled to be the enemy of Rwanda."

Critics of Kagame say that those who challenge him risk more than imprisonment, and they point to the story of gospel singer Kizito Mihigo, once one of Rwanda's most popular artists. Mihigo lost his parents in the genocide and was said to be close to the president's family.

But a decade ago, he released the song "Igisobanuro Cy'urupfu," which included lyrics that crossed the red line in Rwanda politics post genocide. It called for empathy for both Tutsi and Hutu victims of the fighting.

In Rwanda, officially, the 1994 genocide is called the "genocide against the Tutsis." Mihigo was convicted and imprisoned on treason charges. He was later released, but in 2020 he was re-arrested when he tried to flee the country. He was found dead in a police station a short time later.

Mudge, from the Human Rights Watch, doesn't believe the narrative that Mihigo died by suicide in prison. "He was a friend of mine," Mudge said. "I was in touch with him 24 hours before he died and I do not think he killed himself."

Mudge says the harassment against those who do challenge the Kagame government is meant to send a clear message: "It's best just to keep quiet and shut up."

Paul Rusesabagina at the Supreme Court in Kigali on February 17, 2021.
Simon Wohlfahrt / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Paul Rusesabagina at the Supreme Court in Kigali on February 17, 2021.

Today, you have two Rwandas," says Paul Rusesabagina, the hotelier turned dissident whose story inspired the film Hotel Rwanda. Rusesabagina's ties to the Rwanda Movement for Democratic Change, a group that opposes Kagame's rule, have cost him dearly.

In 2021, Rusesabagina says he was kidnapped, tried and imprisoned in Rwanda for two years and seven months. He was forced to sign a letter stating that he would not criticize the government.

Speaking from his home in the U.S., Rusesabagina says there is presently one Rwanda for the elite and then there is the "other" Rwanda: "Rwanda today is more or less a boiling volcano, you've got many people who have been silenced – and others who are silencing them."

Rwanda holds national elections in July. Umohoza will not be on the ballot, but Kagame will, running virtually unopposed. The all-but-certain win would extend his official rule to nearly a quarter century. Rwanda changed its constitution in 2015 to nullify term limits that would have capped Kagame's term, and the last time he stood for an election, the records state he won with 99% of the vote.

The development of Rwanda hasn't been evenly felt, some observers say.
/ Jacques Nkinzingabo for NPR
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Jacques Nkinzingabo for NPR
The development of Rwanda hasn't been evenly felt, some observers say.

NPR made multiple requests to Kagame and was not granted an interview. We reached out to the Rwandan government for comment for this story and spokesperson Yolande Makolo sent a reply:

"Rwandan democracy is delivering progress for Rwandan people. People are free to criticize us, but all the evidence shows that Rwanda is advancing across every sector of society. But of course, there's more to do and we're a work in progress ... the idea that there are 'two Rwandas today' is ridiculous. The Rwandan government is delivering progress for all Rwandans."

Copyright 2024 NPR

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Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.
Tinbete Ermyas
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
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