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Rwanda's president is lauded for transforming the country. But he's also criticized

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

I'm Juana Summers in Kigali, Rwanda. Staring at the skyline in the city, you can't miss the tiered dome.

We're walking up to the Kigali Convention Center now, down a winding, tree-lined path. The building is known to be the most expensive building on the African continent, and a project that's quite special to Rwandan President Paul Kagame.

This building is one of the most visible signs of the ways in which the country has transformed under Kagame's decades in power. This week, as the country marked the 30th anniversary of the genocide, he said Rwanda has had a long journey.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT PAUL KAGAME: But the tremendous progress of our country is plain to see, and it is a result of the choices we made together to resurrect our nation.

SUMMERS: And today, Rwanda has made measurable gains. Life expectancy is up, as is tourism. The roads in Rwanda are paved. There are luxury hotels, tech startups, international investment. But that transformation is only part of Rwanda's story.

PAUL RUSESABAGINA: Today you have two Rwandas. You have the Rwanda for the elite and the other Rwanda.

SUMMERS: That's Paul Rusesabagina, the hotelier-turned-dissident whose story inspired the film "Hotel Rwanda." He is now an outspoken critic of the government.

RUSESABAGINA: You've got some people, many people who have been silenced and others who are silencing them. So Rwanda is rather a boiling volcano which might erupt any time.

SUMMERS: The country's transformation has been uneven and is happening under the tight rule of a president who faces little opposition. All this week, we've been bringing you reporting from Rwanda, and we've been trying to answer some big questions. What does Rwanda tell us about democracy versus authoritarianism? What can we learn about how a country turns the page post-genocide? Is it possible to mandate social reconciliation? To try to understand all of this in this country...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Welcome to Rwanda.

SUMMERS: ...We drive to meet this man.

ALBERT RUDATSIMBURWA: I'm Albert Rudatsimburwa.

SUMMERS: He is a one-time musician and journalist.

RUDATSIMBURWA: Today I do a bit less of journalism but then political analyst. And with the gray hair, it helps, you know?

SUMMERS: He wants to talk over full porcelain mugs of milk.

RUDATSIMBURWA: Well, you have no choice.

SUMMERS: (Laughter) I'm trying to find the words to describe the taste because it's very different than the milk we have in the U.S. It's...

RUDATSIMBURWA: So this is...

SUMMERS: ...Sweeter, almost.

RUDATSIMBURWA: Let's say - let's put it this way. This is, like, a kind of yogurt, but it's natural.

SUMMERS: Milk is a favorite drink in Rwanda and one of the biggest things Rudatsimburwa missed when he was a refugee. His family would find a way to make this fermented milk drink even when they were in exile. He returned to Rwanda in 1994, just after the genocide.

RUDATSIMBURWA: When I came back, it was joy and tears - joy because it had been a journey. To witness the rebirth of a nation - that is the most incredible part.

SUMMERS: That rebirth, he says, would have never happened without Kagame and the ruling political party, the Rwandan Patriotic Front, or RPF. And that's why, he says, Kagame has so much support. He's been reelected three times. Rudatsimburwa is close to the president. In fact, he lives a few doors down from him, and he says Kagame is a skilled leader. He ticks through some of Kagame's accomplishments, like the number of women in government leadership. He says Kagame has visibly improved people's lives.

RUDATSIMBURWA: And the steps were giant steps. You know, I mean, more than 90% of the population has medical care coverage.

SUMMERS: And the country now enjoys massive internet connectivity.

RUDATSIMBURWA: Even the gorillas can take selfies and post them on Instagram in the middle of the jungle, you know?

SUMMERS: Another big step - the country is now home to a number of tech startups, like this one that we visited about an hour south of the capital. That's where a company called Zipline operates a drone delivery service.

There it goes.

The fleet of drones carries blood and other medical supplies to health facilities across the country. The drones look like small planes with white styrofoam bodies and wide wings. And when they take off...

(SOUNDBITE OF DRONE BUZZING)

SUMMERS: ...It looks like a high-tech slingshot. Abdoul Salam Nizeyimana was Zipline's first Rwandan employee. He says the Rwandan government prioritizes innovation.

ABDOUL SALAM NIZEYIMANA: Due to the problems and challenges that we face - most of African countries, at least - is that countries are willing to take bets on some of the things that they think are going to be helpful for the communities or for the country.

SUMMERS: There's also big growth in tourism, which today makes up 11% of Rwanda's GDP. Tourists now fly to the country to go on safari and to see Rwanda's famous gorillas. You can see the country's Visit Rwanda logo on the jerseys of European soccer teams.

ARIELLA KAGERUKA: We started with Arsenal, expanded with PSG. And that's speaking to now people in the world getting to know Rwanda for what it stands for and what it can offer as a country that is open for business and a place where events can be held.

SUMMERS: This is Ariella Kageruka, the head of tourism and conservation for the Rwanda Development Board.

KAGERUKA: Kigali is ranked second as one of the most popular events destination and also a place for sustainable tourism.

SUMMERS: Part of her job is managing the country's public image, which has taken a hit with allegations of human rights abuses.

Many people sometimes express concerns about President Kagame's government and the squashing of political dissent. How do you think about that part of it?

KAGERUKA: You can't avoid it in terms of what, you know, these people are choosing to look at. But it won't stop Rwanda to, you know, remain committed to its development path, to remain committed to what matters more.

SUMMERS: I just want to be clear. Are you saying that those stories are inaccurate or untrue or that it just is a counternarrative? I just want to make sure I understand.

KAGERUKA: I'm telling you what is on the ground. You choose what you believe. The decision is yours - but totally untrue because the most important thing is, do Rwandans believe? Do Rwandans benefit? And are Rwandans happy and continue that path of development, of being united and transformed for good?

LEWIS MUDGE: If these assertions and reporting made by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, International Journalists, etc. - if they're untrue, why are we not allowed in the country?

SUMMERS: This is Lewis Mudge. He's the Central Africa director for Human Rights Watch. He worked in Rwanda but says he was kicked out by the government in 2018. He describes democracy in Rwanda as a performance and says that political opposition is virtually non-existent.

MUDGE: Instead of continuing to clamp down, we think the RPF should open up the space, should allow real, meaningful opposition to challenge some government policies and to allow the country to, through those challenges, move forward accordingly.

SUMMERS: In the country, it's hard to find anyone who will offer even faint criticism of Kagame. One of the few who does speak openly is Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza, an opposition leader who we reached by phone in Kigali.

VICTOIRE INGABIRE UMUHOZA: Kagame was the strongman that we needed after the genocide, but today we need a fresh perspective, fresh blood and fresh new leadership in our country.

SUMMERS: She challenged Kagame in the 2010 election, but she was arrested and imprisoned on terrorism and conspiracy charges. She was pardoned by Kagame in 2018 and released from prison. But she can't leave the country, and she was barred from challenging him again this year.

INGABIRE UMUHOZA: So that is really the problem we have in our country. Citizen - they cannot participate in decision-making. So if they dare to say something to challenge the authorities, they are labeled to be the enemy of Rwanda.

SUMMERS: She also tells me that other political opponents have been imprisoned by the government. Others have disappeared or been assassinated.

MUDGE: I mean, look, she's lucky to be alive.

SUMMERS: Lewis Mudge at Human Rights Watch again.

MUDGE: I think she represents the risk that there is when you challenge the government of Rwanda and President Kagame, and she basically is living with this dagger over her of getting thrown back into prison at any moment.

SUMMERS: Rwanda today, 30 years after the genocide, faces fresh challenges, including a severe humanitarian crisis just at its border. Millions have been forced to flee their homes in the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo. The U.S. government, as well as the U.N., have accused Rwanda of support for a rebel group that has caused that displacement. Rwanda has denied that. Rights groups and government officials have warned the conflict could spill over into regional war.

MUDGE: I don't prescribe to the fact that things are going to bubble over in Rwanda. I think there is a degree of stability that continues to be maintained by the authoritarian government. However, in the region itself, I think we're very much entering a new epoch in which these regional tensions could spill over into a wider range of conflict.

SUMMERS: We reached out to the Rwandan government for comment. Spokesperson Yolande Makolo sent a reply, which I will read in part. Quote, "Rwandan democracy is delivering progress for Rwandan people. People are free to criticize us. But all the evidence shows that Rwanda is advancing across every sector of society. But, of course, there's more to do, and we're a work in progress," end quote. She also said that Human Rights Watch is not a serious or credible organization when it comes to their work in Rwanda. She went on to say the idea that there are two Rwandans today is ridiculous. Quote, "the Rwandan government is delivering progress for all Rwandans," end quote. The government says there's been progress. But Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza says little has changed from 30 years ago.

INGABIRE UMUHOZA: Because we have the same problem - the lack of democracy, the lack of the respect of human rights, the lack for the rule of law - we still have the same problem.

SUMMERS: President Paul Kagame is running virtually unopposed for reelection in July. Last time, he won with 99% of the vote. He could well be in power for another decade.

(SOUNDBITE OF DE LA SOUL SONG, "GREYHOUNDS (FEAT. USHER)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.
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