How the discourse on press freedom in Rwanda has missed the promising developments in that country
Last week I attended President Paul Kagame’s lecture at Chatham House
in London. It was without the usual hecklers i.e. mindless anti-Kagame
fanatics. It attracted the more refined minds of British intellectual
society. So the discussion was calm and reflective. Later in the week, I
spoke at the universities of Oxford in England and Bremen in Germany –
again before audiences of the sophisticated, thoughtful type. In all
events, some people raised the issue of press freedom in Rwanda, saying
that is Kagame’s worst score.
There is a fundamental misunderstanding of what is happening in
Rwanda’s media. The human rights Taliban have distorted the discourse
because they treat democracy as a religion. Religion does not need
“pre-conditions” – you can plant the seed of Christianity or Islam in
any society regardless of its level of development and it will
germinate. But even here it takes generations for people to completely
abandon their traditional superstitions.
Democracy, as a system of government, needs structural foundations;
and it takes time to build regardless of the intentions of leaders.
Governments can write high-sounding constitutions promising freedom and
equality. However, if the structural conditions for it are missing,
little will be realised in practice. That is why it took America 90
years from independence to freeing slaves. Yet the American constitution
clearly stated: “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men
are born equal…” This self-evidence certainly did not apply to poor
white men, all blacks, women and other ethnic minorities – each of whom
gained rights at different times.
America’s democratic institutions did not end slavery; they
perpetuated it. Instead it took a civil war to end it. Even then, it
lasted another 100 years from the 13th amendment (which guaranteed every
adult male a franchise) for America to give its black people the right
to vote. And this was because a large and educated black middleclass had
grown as a result of industrialisation. Even then, the civil rights
movement lasted 15 years of protests and boycotts accompanied by
unprecedented police brutality and KKK terrorism.
Let’s return to Rwanda. The global human rights police have a habit
of picking one unfortunate incident (like the arrest of a journalist)
and present is as a daily pattern. They have been extremely successful
partly because Kigali often plays into their hands. But how many
journalists have been arrested in Rwanda over the last four years? Zero!
Yet if you read Human Rights Watch reports and listen to Kagame
critics, you would think it is 100.
Over the last 20 years, Rwanda’s Gross Domestic Product has grown at
an average rate of 6.6% (and 7.7% since Kagame became president in
2000). This has led to the growth of nominal per capita incomes in
Rwanda from $150 in 1994 to $700 ($1600 in purchasing power parity) in
2014. This income growth has largely been driven by deregulation,
privatisation and liberalisation all of which have freed a significant
share of the economy from the state. The growth of the private sector as
a source of wealth and power has been accompanied by the emergence of
an increasingly large, educated middle-class – a vital social
infrastructure for democratic politics.
The above is accompanied the mass access to education opportunities.
University enrolment in Rwanda has risen from under 1,500 in 1995 to
over 80,000 today. There is free education up to the first 12 years of
schooling; primary school enrolment in Rwanda is at 98% and over 60% of
its youth studying in secondary schools. Mass education is moving hand
in hand with rapid urbanisation – both of which form the software for
Finally, Rwanda is a small country of 26,338 km²that has so far laid
4,000km of Fibre Optic Cable – the highest density of any country in the
developing world including China. Its vision is to have 95% of all
Rwanda connected to the 4G LT (the highest speed internet) by 2017. With
its one-laptop-per-child policy, the spread of smart phones (made
possible by increased education and income), Rwanda is creating the most
promising hardware and software for free publicity/expression in the
Consequently, most Rwandans do not read printed newspapers. Instead,
they depend on the Internet for information and debate on public policy.
Government deliberately encourages the use of social media and has
thereby turned almost every adult citizen into a journalist and a
publisher and broadcaster. This is the most rapid expansion of space for
free expression in history. Therefore, even if it were true that Kagame
jails journalists and shuts down newspapers, his methods would be
archaic and self-defeating. He would be fighting freedom tactically
while building it strategically; which would result in overall good.
It is possible that in all his aforementioned policies towards
education, Internet and income growth, Kagame’s aim is not democracy but
development. Granted! But that is beside the point. Freedom may not be
his subjective motivation but it is likely to be the objective outcome.
It is also possible that in spite of all these developments, democracy
may fail to gain a foothold on the steep hills of Rwanda. But it is also
true that without these developments in education, income and
urbanisation in Rwanda, it is unlikely that the nation can build a
genuinely democratic political dispensation.
A country like Singapore has all these but has not democratised to
the same degree as Norway. However, there is a consensus among its
elites in favour of its current political arrangement. Public
satisfaction with the political system is higher in Singapore than
France and UK. So Rwanda can follow suit. America has the infrastructure
for democratic politics. But democracy has found it difficult to
flourish in that multi-racial nation whose foundation was genocide of
native peoples and the enslavement of its black population. Because of
these early distortions, America has remained an oligarchy of
corporations – the ruling classes relying ever more on propaganda to
keep the illusion of democracy especially to the less observant.
There are many un-freedoms in Rwanda. Some are products of its social
structure. Some are unnecessary actions by the state (and this is where
the debate should be). However, given its history, many un-freedoms in
Rwanda are necessary for ensuring social order – itself the first
pre-condition of democracy. Freedom without order is license. The seed
of democracy does not germinate on the sands of anarchy. Just look at
Libya, Iraq and Mali! In England and Germany last week, the audiences
appreciated these arguments.