Rwanda’s president Paul Kagame recently said he was looking forward to his retirement after 23 years in power. Speaking to the press in April 2023, he claimed he “may join journalism in my old age” – a somewhat surprising choice, given the poor state of the freedom of the press in Rwanda.
But the chances that Kagame will actually step down seem rather small. After a controversial referendum in 2015, Rwandans voted to extend presidential term limits, allowing Kagame to rule potentially until 2034. More recently, Kagame was re-elected to head the ruling party – the Rwandan Patriotic Front – for another five years. And last year he suggested that he might run for president again in Rwanda’s 2024 elections. He said:
I would consider running for another 20 years. I have no problem with that. Elections are about people choosing.
While the 65-year-old leader seems to be open to the idea of retirement, he continues to feel duty-bound to serve his country, saying:
We have been having this discussion within our (ruling) party since 2010 but circumstances, challenges and the history of Rwanda tend to dictate certain things.
My research suggests Kagame is not only acting out of self-interest. For the past decade, I have studied dictators – broadly defined as leaders who cannot be removed through elections, or where political opposition doesn’t operate on a level playing field. I have tried to nuance the assumption that all dictators are power hungry. Some dictators are. But often their motives to rule their countries are more complex.
In my view, this is the case with Kagame. While staying in power is necessary to attaining his vision for Rwanda, it isn’t a goal in itself. Kagame’s end goal seems to be a safe and prosperous Rwanda, but not one that’s meant to benefit all Rwandans equally.
Although it’s prohibited by law to differentiate among Hutu and Tutsi, ethnic differences still matter in Rwanda – favouring Tutsi refugees who were driven out of their country in pre-1994 episodes of genocidal violence. Former refugees like Kagame.
Kagame is indeed a dictator who restricts serious political opposition, independent media and civil society. But he doesn’t rule only for the sake of being in power. I argue that he’s motivated by more than innate self-interest, which is likely to make him more persevering in the pursuit of his goals.
The circumstances, challenges and history of Rwanda are intertwined with Kagame’s own life story. Following a genocidal killing spree that began in 1959 and targeted his ethnic community, the Tutsi, Kagame and his family were forced to flee to Uganda.
Life as a refugee was difficult. Kagame was confronted with discrimination and became politically conscious as he grew older. This culminated in his role as the leader of the Rwandan Patriotic Front, which fought in Rwanda’s civil war in 1990, and eventually to end the 1994 genocide.
Throughout his ascent to Rwanda’s highest office in 2000, Kagame has been pragmatic and ruthless.
The Rwandan Patriotic Front’s invasion of Rwanda from Uganda in 1990 sparked a civil war. Kagame was realistic about what his forces were able to do and was more open to the eventual peace talks than many others in his ranks were.
Yet, when mediation failed and the 1994 genocide needed to be ended, Kagame didn’t shy away from perpetrating mass atrocities to attain this end. After he got into power, his ruthless tactics targeted anyone he believed to be an enemy at home and abroad in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Kagame is also idealistic. He has consistently worked towards the same goal, against all odds, for most of his adult life. He sees the end as justifying the means – whether this entails sacrificing innocent lives to save others during the genocide, or sacrificing freedom for prosperity in post-genocide Rwanda. But for Kagame, idealism goes hand in hand with pragmatism:
If you are driven by the ideal, but you are able to recognise and work with reality, then managing this reality will help you to embrace it and get there. So, the marathon is the long journey we take towards development, it is reality. But we are driven by an ideal, and this ideal allows us to sprint forward; it motivates us; it helps us to achieve our goals and manage reality.
Kagame has received credit for the manner in which Rwanda prospered after the genocide into a clean, modern country with a growing economy.
These achievements are impressive in many respects. But as various studies have shown, this growth hasn’t benefited all Rwandans equally.
This is because the president’s allegiance lies with his fellow Tutsi.
In my view, Kagame’s goal is to create a home for the Tutsi population that was chased out of Rwanda before the 1994 genocide.
The president launched a project of social engineering where, on the surface, ethnicity no longer matters and the economy is thriving due to extensive modernisation.
But ethnicity continues to matter. An example of this is that, for nearly 10 years, the Tutsi have come to be recognised as the only genocide survivors in the country. In 2014, Kagame officially renamed the genocide “the 1994 Genocide Against the Tutsi”.
The name change suggests that only the Tutsi are victimised. Consequently, the Hutu are perceived as either culpable bystanders or perpetrators. It obscures the fact that moderate Hutus were targeted as well in 1994.
In addition, some scholars have questioned the extent of Rwanda’s economic progress. An Ansoms, a professor in development studies, states that the country’s apparent modernisation hides “the true extent of poverty and inequality in the countryside”.
For as long as Kagame believes he hasn’t fulfilled his goal of creating a prosperous and stable Rwanda that can be home to former Tutsi refugees like himself, he will continue to seek power.