Rwanda's President Thinks He's Indispensable

Maybe he is. That doesn't bode well for his people or the progress his country has made.

Dangerous thinking.

Photographer: Marco Longari/AFP/Getty Images

This could have been the year that Rwandan President Paul Kagame rode off into the sunset to riches and acclaim.

Kagame has been his country's dominant political figure since leading the 1994 military rebellion that halted the genocide by the majority Hutus of his ethnic group, the Tutsis. He was chosen as president by the country's parliament and cabinet in 2000. Then, after a new constitution called for a directly elected president who could serve two seven-year terms, he ran and was elected easily in 2003 and 2010.

If he had chosen to step down at the end of that second elected term this year, Kagame might have been a strong contender for the Ibrahim Prize -- an award of $5 million over 10 years and $200,000 a year for life after that, financed by Sudanese-British mobile-phone billionaire Mo Ibrahim to give African leaders incentive to hand over power peacefully. I'd also guess that, given how admired he is in Western business circles, Kagame could have landed a lucrative corporate board seat or two, gone on the speaking circuit and found lots of other attractive opportunities. In short, the guy had options that your typical African politician does not.

Instead, it looks as if Kagame will be keeping his firm grip on political power for another decade or two. After Rwandans amended their constitution in 2015 to allow him to run for one more seven-year term as president and two more five-year ones, he was reelected Friday with what the Rwandan National Election Commission said was 98.63 percent of the vote.

Developing-world presidents who get reelected with 99 percent of the vote are common enough, of course. We generally call them dictators, and we assume that their desire to stay in office indefinitely is driven by some combination of a hunger for power and an instinct for self-preservation.

Kagame isn't just some tin-pot dictator, though. He's the architect of one of the great economic development success stories of the past quarter-century. Here's Rwanda's per-capita real gross domestic product since 1990:

Rwanda's Economic Rise

Per-capita GDP, at purchasing power parity, 2011 U.S. dollars

Source: World Bank

Here's how that compares with Rwanda's neighbors:

Rwanda and Its Neighbors

GDP per capita, purchasing power parity, 2011 U.S. dollars

Source: World Bank

The country's recovery in life expectancy since the genocide and the AIDS crisis that preceded it is even more impressive:

Rwandans Are Living Longer

Life expectancy at birth

Source: World Bank

In recent years, outside experts have called some of this evidence of progress into question. In an op-ed in the New York Times last week, Bert Ingelaere of the University of Antwerp in Belgium described participating in a 2005 World Bank effort to collect data on poverty reduction in Rwanda only to have the data seized and destroyed by Kagame's government. His University of Antwerp colleague Filip Reyntens has estimated that in the past few years poverty rates in Rwanda have actually been rising, and anonymous authors writing in the Review of African Political Economy charged last month that the country's GDP numbers must be fudged, because they are starting to diverge significantly from household consumption measures.

Still, no one denies that Rwanda has made huge strides under Kagame. As Ingelaere wrote near the end of his mostly critical op-ed:

I concede that Rwanda has made remarkable economic progress since facing near-total destruction in 1994, and that some think it is still worth debating the merits of trade-offs between democracy and development.

So maybe the main reason that Kagame wants to stay on is that he is honestly convinced that no one else could successfully steer his country to the happy future of middle-income prosperity and peace that he envisions for it. Given Rwanda's recent history, ethnic divisions and sometimes hostile neighbors, one can understand why he thinks it needs a strong guiding hand. And there is of course one shining example of a leader of a small, ethnically divided country in a less-than-peaceful neighborhood who held onto power for decades and stifled dissent -- yet delivered such spectacular results that people around the world had pretty much only good things to say about him when he died in 2015.

That would be Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew, on whom Kagame explicitly models himself. As Christian Caryl put it in Foreign Policy in 2015:

Like Lee, Kagame has laid out a rigorous development strategy for his country based on trade, finance, and services. And like Lee he has pursued his plan with extraordinary single-mindedness, focusing limited resources on education, health, and information technology. Kagame, who aims to leverage cyberspace to overcome his country’s physical remoteness, has covered the country with a network of fiber optic cables. In 2000, according to government statistics, the number of Internet users in Rwanda was around 5,000. Today the number is 3.2 million, a quarter of the population.

So far, so Singaporean. Lee did one thing, though, that autocratic rulers tend to fail at: He groomed successors and built institutions that steadily supplanted him while he was alive and who seem to have taken over without much of hitch since his death. Kagame has hinted at similar aims: "I don't think that what we need is an eternal leader," he said when he announced his candidacy for a third elected term last year. But at age 59, he hasn't shown many tangible signs of preparing the way for a Kagame-less Rwanda.

I met Kagame once four years ago, when he paid a visit to Michael Porter's classroom at Harvard Business School (Porter is a longtime Kagame fan and adviser). Maybe it was just the setting, or the fact that I have a lot more experience as a business journalist than as a political journalist, but what he reminded me of more than anything was of a chief executive officer who after decades of success was being pestered by activist investors and corporate governance scolds. (The stuff about fudging the GDP numbers kind of fits that analogy, too.)

Kagame was engaged, enthusiastic and extremely well-informed when talking development strategy with Porter. He was prickly and dismissive when students brought up more sensitive topics during the Q&A. His vibe was that of a man who knows what needs to be done in his country and is tired of outsiders getting in the way with their silly notions of democracy and freedom of expression. He also seems to think he's indispensable. Maybe, just maybe, he's right.

One problem with thinking that you're indispensable, though, is that it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. I am reminded of famously detail-oriented former American International Group Inc. Chief Executive Officer Maurice "Hank" Greenberg, who for several years after the insurance company he had built to greatness more or less collapsed during the 2008 financial crisis, made the media rounds arguing that if he hadn't been forced out by overzealous regulators 1 in 2005, AIG wouldn't have gotten into nearly as much trouble as it did.

My reaction at the time was that:

  1. Greenberg may well have been right, but
  2. He can't have been that great a CEO if his company was left helpless without him.

And that's the key, really. Kagame may ultimately be judged by what happens in Rwanda after he's gone. Is he preparing for that?

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

  1. Then-New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer in particular.

To contact the author of this story:
Justin Fox at

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Brooke Sample at

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