Rwanda Turns Off

Outsiders could be forgiven for thinking these are the good days in Rwanda. Thirteen years after a civil war killed some 800,000 citizens, the country's reconstruction is well underway. Since 1994, GDP has grown at a steady 6 percent and the household poverty rate has dropped from 70 percent to 57 percent. Last week, the Ibrahim Index—a new scale that measures African governments on security, transparency, human rights and economic opportunity—named Rwanda the most improved sub-Saharan country over the past five years.

Inside the country, however, things feel markedly different. For years, a creeping authoritarianism has been setting in. President Paul Kagame argues that his increasingly strong-armed policies—which include the death penalty for anyone who tries to incite Rwandans to genocide—are necessary to keep the bitterly divided country together. There's something to this; in the early 1990s Hutu President Juvénal Habyarimana used the media to fan anti-Tutsi hatred, which eventually erupted in mass killings. But Kagame's Tutsi-led government is pushing the definition of what's necessary to keep the peace; journalists have been beaten, driven into exile and jailed for criticizing the government. One editor was fired merely for publishing a photo deemed unflattering of the president. And now the repression is starting to interfere with the one area in which Rwanda has made real progress—its economy.

The problem involves Rwanda's attempt to develop a high-tech sector. Kagame's Vision 2020 plan aims to raise incomes and reduce the percentage of the population relying on agriculture by making Rwanda an IT services hub and a producer of cheap PCs. It's an ambitious plan, but outside donors are helping out. Sweden funds all the Rwandan government's IT activities, and the Dutch are paying for the construction of a fiber-optic backbone, due to be finished by 2008, which should lower communication costs. Google is teaching the government how to take advantage of its free online applications, and has even sent engineers to Rwanda to help local institutions offer the programs under their own domain names.

But trying to build an information economy while tightening government control over the flow of that information may not be possible, analysts say. Development will lead to the creation of a middle class, who are likely to demand equitable treatment and start balking at restrictions on their lives.

And as Andrew Anderson, deputy director of the Dublin-based Front Line Defenders (a human-rights foundation) explains, restricting the flow of information can hobble an IT economy. "In the long run," says Anderson, "you can't promote the kind of access to independent thinking an information economy thrives on while also trying to shut it down."

Finally, outside donors, who remain critical to Rwanda's success, are unlikely to keep giving as Kagame becomes more oppressive. Foreign investors already are getting the jitters; last year foreign direct investment totaled just $30 million. Rwanda has done a good job so far at staving off direct international condemnation. In 2003, Clare Short, Britain's former secretary of State for international development, flatly declared that is was unacceptable to criticize the human-rights record of a country that had suffered so much.

Yet the tide may now be turning. This year, Human Rights Watch denounced the country for executing 20 detainees who were awaiting trial, and the U.S. State Department criticized Rwanda's human-rights record in a report last March.

That could cause real problems, for Rwanda still desperately needs outside help. True, its economy has grown at an impressive clip, but not fast enough to keep pace with its burgeoning population. Much of the wealth that has been generated has been limited to the new, largely Tutsi and politically connected elite in Kigali; few ordinary Rwandans have benefited. Sixty percent of the population still lives below the poverty line, and the country remains tiny, landlocked and devoid of natural resources.

Yet with legislative elections coming up next year, Kagame seems unlikely to relax his grip any time soon. That's unfortunate for everyone, including him, since it will ensure that his Tutsi government remains out of touch with the Hutu majority, aggravating the very ethnic tensions that no one is allowed to talk about. If outside donors keep giving, it will set a terrible precedent both for Rwanda and the continent at large. If they stop, the country could face collapse. As Kagame said in March, "In today's world, success … requires access to information and [the] ability to use it effectively." He should know; after all, news, communication—and the future of Rwanda—remain tightly in his grasp.