In the mid-1990s,
both Somalia and Rwanda lay in ruins. Somali warlords had torn their country
apart, and the Rwandan genocide had taken over one million lives. Somalia is still
a failed state, while Rwanda is peaceful and full of promise, a tourist
destination with a pretty capital, the cleanest in Africa, according to the UN.
It could become not just the success story of the region, but of all Africa.
Much of this is due to the energy, vision, and ambition of Paul Kagame, its
president, the former leader of the rebel army, the Rwandan Patriotic Front. 

Rwanda needs a leader like him, a man of enormous energy, intelligence and purpose. Once the world woke up to the slaughter in which up to one million may
have died, it still misunderstood what was happening. The hordes of refugees on
TV were not victims, but mainly killers fleeing across the border to Congo.
From there they sustained their campaign of murder and hatred in the refugee
camps and plotted an invasion. This, according to Kinzer, is Rwanda’s
present challenge: to incorporate a guilty majority with an aggrieved, fearful
minority into a single political community.

Kinzer rightly
points out that Africa lags behind the
developed world not simply because of unethical and self-serving leadership.
Uniting deeply divided societies – divided culturally, and set against each
other by colonialist divide-and-rule policies — and radically changing the
mentality of entire populations are immensely difficult tasks.

Rwandans must forgive
those who slaughtered their families and even live together with them as
brothers. Reconciliation is “Rwanda’s
supreme political imperative”, and it is driven by religion, according to
Kinzer, who interviewed pastors and psychologists who backed up this belief. As
the magazine Christian Century commented:
“Rwanda
is a global lab for testing new models of Christian forgiveness.”

The people’s
courts, the gacaca — the word means
“people sitting on the grass”, the traditional way of solving land problems,
are admirable. They convene where crimes actually happened; victims and
witnesses are encouraged to speak; sentences are limited to 30 years, with half
to be served on parole; defendants who make full, sincere confessions are
treated mercifully and encouraged to rejoin their communities. The system is
not perfect, but it works. More serious crimes are tried in regular courts, or
before the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in Tanzania, which
has tried 30 people at a cost of $1 billion.

When the 100 days
of slaughter came to an end and Kagame entered the capital, he found a scene to
harrow up the soul, the city’s streets littered with debris and human remains.
Now Kigali is a
showpiece of fine buildings, highways, landscaping, cleanliness, order and –
unusual for an African capital — security and absence of corruption.

After he was elected president in 2003 (with 95 percent of the popular vote), Kagame and his men devised
an ambitious programme called Vision 2020. Its mission was to make Rwanda the
trade and commercial hub of East and Central Africa,
a region blessed with resources but mired in poverty, corruption and
inefficiency. So he built a modern network of road, air and internet
connections; improved the education system, especially in science and
information technology; promoted gender equality; and encouraged private
investment.

Corruption was
punished, too. Unlike most of Africa, where the guilty are quietly
rehabilitated once the storm is over, in Rwanda anyone, even a minister, caught
with his hand in the till will feel the full force of the law. After several
warnings in cabinet meetings against government money being spent on expensive
cars, Kagame ordered police to stop every luxury car they saw and if a
government official was inside, to confiscate there and then. In Rwanda a ministry
is not a privilege or a sinecure.

And what of the
man himself, a rebel-leader turned statesman who has already earned a place in
history by overthrowing a dictatorship, stopping a genocide, stabilizing an
impossibly divided country, and giving his people a sense of enthusiasm and
optimism? Transforming Rwanda
into a stable, contented and prosperous place is not easy, but Kagame has set
out to do just that. If he succeeds, he will have worked the miracle of pulling
an African country from misery to prosperity within one generation.

Paul Kagame was born
into the Tutsi aristocracy and left Rwanda when he was two years old, having
escaped a death squad rampaging through the countryside in a 1959 massacre of
Tutsis. When young, he was sullen, withdrawn and irascible, and projected such
seriousness that even older people curbed their rowdiness and rough language
when he entered a room. British journalist Linda Melvern described him as
“secretive, sober, determined… a truly impressive leader, who shared his
soldiers’ privations and insisted on a level of discipline unknown among
African rebel armies.” His tennis partner, a former buddy-in-arms, told the
author that “if you miss a shot, you think he wants to kill you.”

Kagame is hard on
himself and hard on others. He has surrounded himself with well-read and widely
experienced people, the best available. His dreams are favoured by a vibrant,
returning diaspora, outside support – no world political or business leader
omits Rwanda
from his African itinerary– and the compactness of his country. But saboteurs
of his success still live just across the Congo border.

Kinzer’s very
readable and well-researched book can be faulted in two areas. The role of the
Catholic Church comes over as mainly negative, and the heroism of many clerics,
religious and lay faithful goes largely unmentioned. And he slights the
Francophone influence. Perhaps he should have seen the French connection in its
social and cultural, and not only political, aspects.

Is Paul Kagame an
African Lee Kwan Yew? Can he build another Singapore in the heart of Africa?
Only time will tell, but so far his achievements are remarkable.

Martyn Drakard writes from Kampala, in Uganda.

Martyn Drakard is a retired teacher of languages who lives in Kenya.