Stephen Kinzer, former Times correspondent, has written a curious book about Paul Kagame, current leader of Rwanda. Kinzer's approach is to tell Kagame's story from the beginning and then let Kagame, in his own italicized words, comment on the ideas and incidents that Kinzer has highlighted. This makes for a nice balance of author and subject but more often than not Kinzer seems uncertain whether Kagame's particular approach is really as wonderful as Kinzer desperately wants it to be.
Why is Kinzer so eager to see Kagame succeed? That's a simple enough question to answer. The Rwandan genocide was a horrendous event and one can only feel sympathy for the Rwandan people and wish them well in overcoming the disastrous effects of that grusome episode. One also senses a real affection for Kagame on the part of Kinzer who undoubtedly views him as an immensely heroic (even romantic?) figure. A true guerrilla leader/statesman in the mold of Che Guevara. A man who also bent history to his own will.
One of the most remarkable revelations in this book is that fact that foreign diplomats posted in Kigali are often at odds with their home governments in how to deal with the overtly authoritarian and at times repressive actions of Kagame's government. When Kinzer interviews these diplomats the same rationale seems to emerge: we don't like everything Kagame is doing but it seems to be working so let's not rock the boat. Kinzer also makes short work of critical analysts from organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch who according, to Kinzer, are short-sighted and may even have an anti-Kagame bias.
This is not to say that Kinzer himself is totally on board with the Kagame Way. Far from it. He asks all the right questions about all the appropriate issues, but his bias is always to give Kagame the benefit of the doubt. In fact he gives more than a benefit: he ends up suggesting that the Kagame Way might be the most appropriate way for the rest of Sub-Saharan Africa.
What would this mean? Basically a shift away from democratically elected governments to one party, 'enlightened' authoritarianism. Highly aggressive population control schemes, coupled with an emphasis on education, particularly of the technical kind. It also means state involvement in all aspects of the economy as well as hyper-security measures that are designed to undermine any organized resistance to the state's control. In other contexts, these measures would be reviled by the international community: in Rwanda the diplomats note that the streets are clean, that there is no visible crime in their particular neighborhoods and that the people are industrious, punctual, and polite. (What's there for a foreigner not to like?)
Given what Rwanda has been through it is hard to argue that what exists there now is much better than what went on before. It is also hard not to admire Paul Kagame. He is 'serious' (a 'serious' word in Rwanda), and fearless and does seem to be in the mold of other enlightened strong-men like Lee Kwan Yew of Singapore and Mahatir of Malaysia.
Whether there are other Kagames waiting in the wings of other African nations is highly doubtful. The best hope is that young politicians in other African countries will see that Kagame is offering a way that is not totally dependent on the 'kindness of strangers' i.e. foreign aid, and a way that stresses hard work and honesty over corruption and greed.
As for enlightened despotism: well let's hope that the world and Mr. Kinzer believe that even Africans deserve better.
A Thousand Hills:Rwanda's Rebirth and the Man Who Dreamed It
John Wiley & Sons 2008