Starting a conversation about Rwanda is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you're gonna get. Observers of the small East African nation are often polarized in their views of the country's governance -- either President Paul Kagame is an inspirational genius getting things done in a country that was hacking itself to death just 15 years ago, or he is a brutal dictator, quashing the opposition, press and anyone else who threatens his power or so much as mentions the words "Hutu" or "Tutsi". Whichever side you take, it is nearly impossible to talk about Rwanda without talking about Kagame. Because for many, Kagame = Rwanda (which is not to suggest that this is the way he would want to be perceived).
During the 15 year commemoration/remembrance of the 1994 Rwanda genocide last week, there were a flurry of articles and blog posts written on the subject, some applauding and others criticizing Rwanda's current government. You could almost wonder if you were reading about the same country while reading two articles like VOA's "Rwanda Gacaca Criticized as Unfair for Genocide Trials", and then "Rwanda 15 Years On" by Josh Ruxin, director of Rwanda Works and Columbia University public health expert.
Meanwhile, human rights organizations have also been hard at work to publicize their own assessments. Human Rights Watched published a news story last week titled, "The Power of Horror in Rwanda" in the Los Angeles Times and lists many more country reports here. In their 2008 Annual Report on Rwanda, Reporters Without Borders wrote: "Appalling relations persisted between the government and a section of the independent press, especially the more highly critical publications..."
If you talk to journalists and some members of the diplomatic community in Uganda, you will hear stories of journalists being deported from Rwanda, picked up at their offices and driven to the airport without time to even collect their belongings, you will hear of the arrest of those who speak critically of the government, you will hear of those who have fled the country to escape imprisonment...you will even hear of those who have been disappeared. I cannot speak the truth or accuracy of any of this. What I have heard are second, third or fourth hand accounts.
What I have experienced first-hand is Rwanda (and specifically Kigali) today. I have visited government officials in their brand new office buildings, I have driven (been driven) on smooth roads, I have run on clean sidewalks and walked alone at night without fear, I have seen how patients are treated with care (and medicine...and new machines) in Kigali's main referral hospital, I have met with investors and seen plans and blueprints for beautiful hotels and resorts around Rwanda. And I was impressed by it all.
This is not to say that everything in Rwanda is hunky dory everywhere all the time. Rwanda is a very poor country, with fewer resources and human capacity than Uganda, Kenya or Tanzania (in fact the country is soaking up talent from all over the world in its hospitals, universities, etc). Many people are concerned about what will happen in the next 5 or 10 years. They wonder whether Kagame will step down, or if he will become like so many African leaders before him, refusing to relinquish power. Being the optimistic person that I am, I of course am leaning towards the former. But these are critical years for Rwanda. These are the years in which systems, institutions, and capacity must be built if peace and development are to continue in an era post-Kagame or even post-RPF.
What I can say is that it is almost impossible (if not entirely impossible) to put oneself in Kagame's shoes. He has and will make mistakes, as any leader will do. But I think as outside observers to Rwanda's development we should ensure that in being critical, we are not unwittingly being hypocritical instead.