Paul Kagame, Chairman of the African Union and President of the Republic of Rwanda, has been proclaimed the 2018 African of the Year by Forbes Africa. The announcement came shortly before the end of Vision 2020, the flagship development programme of this controversial leader. How does the strategy relate to Kagame’s affirmed economic ideals, especially in the context of his country’s strengthening relationship with China?
Rwanda’s thousand hills have witnessed extraordinary events – for better and for worse. The nation that experienced one of the most shocking genocides in modern history is currently renowned for its tidiness, coffee and outstanding economic growth. Paul Kagame, its President since 2000, is widely credited for orchestrating this success through Vision 2020, a roadmap for Rwanda’s transformation into a middle-income economy. At the same time, political and civil freedoms continue to be curtailed. Although the coupling of state-led development with state-backed repression is not a novel strategy, its usage by Kagame gains in significance within the context of Rwanda-China relations.
Those contacts have taken diverse forms and tend to evolve complementarily. While Vision 2020 has been inspired by the Chinese development model back in the 90s, nowadays private and public entities from the PRC compete for the Rwandan logistics and services markets. This state of things benefits both sides – China gains experience and recognition in sectors other than the extraction of raw materials, while Rwanda strengthens its economic base. One of Kagame’s central goals, self-reliance through the rejection of foreign aid, has also been supported by Xi Jinping in 2018. Vision 2020 exemplifies Rwanda’s leader policy of emulating the general characteristics of China’s development while implementing domestically-adjusted practical steps.
Kagame elaborates on one of those solutions in the interview with Forbes Africa. Its dual focus is on public entrepreneurship on the one hand and cooperation with big business on the other – influential private sector is to lead the economic revival while engaging with a prosperous and resourceful populace. Consequently, investors are also expected to obey the state which has created these favourable conditions. However, it remains unclear how individual political participation, which the President repeatedly underlines, can take root in such a context. Given Rwanda’s almost non-existent civil society, Kagame is likely to refer only to purely economic consultations. As such, his vision bears a resemblance with China’s consultative democracy; in its eagerness to include billionaires and state-business connections, it retains a ‘Let some people get rich first’ feel. The latter should be further emphasized in Vision 2050, the current programme’s successor, which includes ‘Sacrifice and Saving’ among its guiding principles.
Vision 2020’s revision of 2012 makes Kagame’s ideal even more pronounced – out of seven indicators that relate to private sector and entrepreneurship (5., 10., 33., 42., 44., 46. and 48.), five have been added in 2012. Moreover, Objective 3.2 describes investment in services (which aligns with Chinese economic interests) as one of the crucial components in the country’s structural transformation and “the most important engine of Rwanda’s economy”.
Nonetheless, and contrary to the PRC, Kagame’s reforms are not constrained by the need to protect an ideology. His merits in rebuilding Rwandan society after the genocide and current efforts at African integration often make him seem a progressive, praiseworthy figure. However, strongman politics’ ability to support grassroots entrepreneurial growth based on internal regional competition and knowledge diffusion (therefore truly emulating China’s success) in a small, landlocked and resource-poor country may be the biggest challenge in Rwanda’s future.