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Explaining the West's love affair with Rwanda

Cai Nebe
March 15, 2023

Enforced disappearances, no political opposition and a longtime president who tolerates no dissent. So why are Western democracies so bent on doing business with Rwanda?

Ruanda Kigali City
Western governments find Rwanda's economic success story enticing Image: Imago/photothek/T. Imo

Kigali is putting the final touches in place for hosting the 73rd FIFA Congressin March 16, a marquee event for powerful executives of the world's most popular sport. The federation's Secretary General, Gianni Infantino, stands unopposed for reelection. Confirming his leadership is a formality, and his grip on FIFA's top job is firm.

The same applies to President Paul Kagame's leadership of Rwanda. The small East African nation, a target of much criticism by human rights groups, is at odds with Western countries' purported values concerning freedom of expression and multi-party democracy.

FIFA is no stranger to criticism when it comes to the thorny question of human rights. But hosting the congress in Rwanda raised some eyebrows. Human rights organization Equidemcalled Rwanda "one of the most repressive states in Africa” and charged FIFA with "legitimizing a regime that stands accused of indefinitely detaining and torturing activists for simply speaking their minds."

President Paul Kagame
President Paul Kagame doesn't tolerate political dissentImage: Jean Bizimana/REUTERS

Human Rights Watch pulled no punches either, describing Rwanda as a state that "targets those perceived as a threat to the government."

FIFA is not alone in turning a blind eye to Rwanda's authoritarian streak. The United Kingdom chose to partner with Rwanda for its much-criticized plan to deter asylum seekers by sending those who arrive on the island illegally to the East African nation.

And while Germany's Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development says political opponents of President Paul Kagame "are repeatedly abducted and imprisoned illegally", this Monday, six mobile vaccine production units by German pharma giant BioNTech arrived in Rwanda, the first such shipments to Africa as the continent seeks to boost mRNA vaccine manufacturing. Rwanda was mandated to distribute the vaccines to the African Union's 55 members. 

The 'can do' country

Which raises the question of why the West seems willing to ignore Rwanda's human rights record. 

"Conflicted," is how Kampala-based independent researcher Frederick Golooba Mutebi described Western policy in Rwanda.

"They talk almost endlessly about Rwanda's human rights record, but they can't help appreciating Rwanda's capacity to manage the resources it gets from international organizations and development partners very effectively," Mutebi told DW.  

East Africa expert Phil Clark of SOAS explained that many in the West see Rwanda's renaissance since the devastating 1994 genocide as an appealing success story.

"A lot of international organizations and states want to be associated with that very compelling story of recovery," he told DW, adding that "Rwanda has successfully framed itself as a very trustworthy international partner. You get the story of being part of this country's recovery, and your plan is going to be enacted in a very clear and predictable way."

Among those partners are the United States, who contribute the biggest sum to Rwanda's health sector. Annual investments of about $116 million in the last three yearshave benefitted an estimated 13 million Rwandans. In 2021, the United States provided $147 million in foreign assistance, making it Rwanda's largest bilateral donor.

Rwanda is perceived to use aid more effectively than its neighbors, having built a comparatively good infrastructure. Kigali invested in the education and health care systems. Rwanda was the first country in the world to have a female majority in parliament. Its cities are safe, the roads are clean and public service is well organized.

File photo of Rwanda's parliament posing
Rwanda's parliament was the first in the world with a majority of women representativesImage: Cyril Ndegeya/picture alliance/Photoshot

The roots of Rwanda's "can do" reputation lie in the highly organized structures of the ruling Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF). The party has its own businesses, and, not uncontroversially, controls many aspects of daily Rwandan life.

Golooba Mutebi disputed that Rwanda had a worse human rights record that its neighbors. He described Rwanda's political system as one that "prioritizes consensus building rather than competition." Though Rwanda has 11 political parties, the RPF-led political system rejects what Golooba Mutebi calls "adversarial contestation" in favour consensus. This is at odds with most Western democracies, and has led to accusations of authoritarianism.

Clare Akamanzi, chief executive officer of the Rwanda Development Board, wrote that Rwandans "are determined to prove wrong attempts to dictate who we should be and what we should or should not do to improve our lives."

Few resources but plenty of imagination

Rwanda has increasingly been accused of "sportswashing", a term used to describe state initiatives using sporting events to distract international audiences from problematic human rights records. Critics of this notion, like Akamanzi say the term is "almost exclusively employed by commentators in the West, and almost exclusively deployed against countries in the Global South."

Rwanda has gained significant international exposure through its "Visit Rwanda" partnership deals with football giants Arsenal FC and Paris St Germain, as well as basketball's NBA Africa. It will also be the first African country to host the UCI Road World Championship in 2025.

Arsenal FC players, based in London, sport the Visit Rwanda logo
Arsenal FC, based in London, sport the Visit Rwanda logoImage: picture-alliance/dpa/S. Ian

According to Clark, focusing on sports is just one example of Rwandan leaders' pragmatic approach to foreign partnerships. The outlook is international, because "they think: We are a small, landlocked country, a very tiny economy with no natural resources, in a very volatile, sometimes very hostile region."

To survive, Rwanda's government has bet on making itself "useful to global, powerful actors", through migration deals and peacekeeping, "but also through sport," the expert said.

The Kagame factor

President Paul Kagame's Rwandan Patriotic Front ended the 1994 genocide, and has been in power ever since. The 65-year-old head of state assumed office in 2000. No Western leader has served as long, nor with as much authority over their country. Kagame is ambitious, astute, and no beginner when it comes to playing Western nations off each other, as happened when formerly francophone Rwanda joined the British Commonwealth in 2009, simultaneously ending a diplomatic deep-freeze with France. Despite plenty of criticism, Western leaders respond positively to Kagame's impressive personality.

"Kagame is a master at the international game," said Clark. "Sometimes his critics overlook that. He's able to project this very clear sense of leadership. He will say: I'm the person who, with my party rescued this country after the genocide. And look at what we have built since."

An effective military

Rwanda, itself a stable country, is located in the notoriously unstable Great Lakes region. Since coming to power, Kagame's RPF has repeatedly been accused of fomenting insecurityin neighboring countries, most notably in the much larger Democratic Republic of Congo. Recently, the M23 rebel group has captured vast swathes of Congolese land. Nicolas De Rivière, Permanent Representative of France to the United Nations, told reporters:

"It is clear that Rwanda supports the M23. It is also clearly established that there are incursions by the regular Rwandan army in North Kivu and that this too is unacceptable."

Pressure on Rwanda grows over rebel violence in DRCongo

The same military, however, is revered in other circles across Africa as a fighting force that can quickly bring peace and stability, from Darfur to Mozambique, according to Clark.

"Rwanda has been incredibly effective at realizing what international partners, either the United Nations, the African Union or its neighbors need at particular times. It's a very disciplined force that very few African states have."

Have Western nations misjudged Rwanda?

For Western nations, Rwanda seems to be a reliable partner: it is an island of political stability in East Africa with a military capable of restoring order in regional conflicts, instead of international intervention forces. It has partnered with the UK to ostensibly solve Downing Street's migration problem; and is very effective at using aid money to achieve slated economic development targets.

Still, Western politicians are in a dilemma. Rwanda is a tiny, efficient country punching above its weight, with a GDP that was growing at around 10% before the COVID-19 pandemic. But it is led by a ruthless president and a repressive government with a lethal army. According to Clark, most donors know "these two realities operate side by side, and they are willing to go along with that because there are some very tangible benefits coming out of what is a very undemocratic environment."

Golooba Mutebi is unsure if Kagame's style of foreign policy or partnership building can outlive him. A lot will depend on Kagame's successor being "as visionary, as foresighted, as unconventional in his or her thinking," he told DW.

Edited by: Cristina Krippahl