Thursday, August 12, 2010

Rwanda: the Singapore of Africa?

This week I have been reading a lot about a small country in a turbulent region where authoritarian one-party rule, in the guise of democracy, has soothed ethnic tensions and brought stability and rapid economic development.

This has been achieved under the watchful eye of a ruthless, maverick leader who tolerates little criticism, using draconian laws to silence dissenting journalists and opposition activists

With the help of tight control over the electoral process, the ruling party is assured overwhelming majorities at every election. It is so confident of its position that it can even afford to lend a helping hand to some of the less threatening opposition parties, in order to promote the appearance of a multitude of political voices.

Western nations, led by the US and Britain, have "mollycoddled" this leader, according to the Financial Times, encouraging the notion that the country's stability rests on him.

"They have relied on his good will to get the timing right, in the hope that political space will gradually open," the FT says. "It should come as no surprise that the reverse is taking place."

According to The Economist, the success of authoritarian rule in this country raises a number of wider questions: "So where should the balance between development and freedom lie? Can democracy be shoved aside in the battle against poverty? And what should outsiders do to tilt the balance back?"

The Economist's conclusion is that those in the West who praise the leader of this country for his achievements in development "must also loudly lambast him for his loathsome and needless tendency to intolerance".

The country in question is, of course, Rwanda, not Singapore. And the leader is Paul Kagame, not Lee Kuan Yew.

The seemingly uncanny similarity between the situations in the two countries is partly the result of Kagame's efforts to learn from Singapore.

Kagame made his first official visit to Singapore in 2008, when he gave a lecture at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, telling the audience:

"In the case of Rwanda, we look at countries like Singapore as inspirational development models due to the rapid pace at which you successfully transformed your country."

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