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Is Rwanda like Singapore?

Pardon me for not blogging about Kagame’s electoral victory; it was not much of a surprise. Instead, I’ve been wanting to talk about something that he mentioned often on the election trail: Singapore.

On numerous occasions over the past months, we have heard President Kagame express his doubts about the wisdom of importing democracy to Rwanda. He has said numerous times that he feels that the kind of limited democracy of South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore – all countries where authoritarian governments oversaw periods of steep economic growth – is more suited for Rwanda.

Political pundits like Andrew Mwenda agree, saying that the elites’ isolation from popular pressures will allow them to avoid populist redistributive programs that mire the country in patronage. Their top-down management and lack of opposition can allow them to push through difficult reforms such as the new land law and the introduction of English as the language of instruction. He argues that this has allowed Rwanda to avoid the corruption trap of its neighbor Uganda, where the NRM has maintained its rule through patronage and co-option.

Others, such as Kagame’s policy advisor Jean-Paul Kimonyo say that democracy could lead to conflict: “The issue here is how do you ensure political cooperation when confrontational politics will almost certainly lead to renewed violence?”

There are, indeed, some academics who might agree with this perspective. David Waldner, for example, suggests that Taiwan and South Korea succeeded at developing much quicker than Turkey and Syria, for example, because their elites were united (and authoritarian), didn’t have to stoop to patronage politics, and were able to offer an educated and very cheap work force. It’s not easy to push through tough policies like land reform and fiscal austerity – we need a strong state to do this, the argument goes (and if you don’t believe us, look at Kenya and Nigeria).

However, most economists would insist that there is no recipe to growth. Dani Rodrik (Harvard), Pranab Bardhan (Berkeley) and Paul Collier (Oxford) – despite their many differences – would all agree that being authoritarian is not necessary for development. The danger is also that in very poor states, authoritarianism often goes hand in hand with weak checks and balances to hem in abuse of power. The bedrock of development – property rights, rule of law, fiscal solvency and market-oriented incentives – could be easily undermined.

The RPF largely protects most of these essential ingredients (although they also maintain a strong hand in the economy, in which the the RPF has significant involvement through holding companies). But let’s not get carried out: The Asian Tigers all had vibrant industrial sectors built before and during WWII, drawing on cheap educated labor, cheap primary resources (cotton, steel, sisal and oil) and steep levels of foreign direct investment in manufacturing.

The real criticism, however, is a political one: The RPF is a very hierarchical regime with few checks and balances. This is not China, where the communist party has internal mechanisms for debate, promotion and sanctioning of abusive officials; it is also not Singapore, where a strong entrepreneurial sector has kept the pressure on the regime to maintain FDI and trade; this is not Korea, where there is a thousand year-old tradition of a strong, independent bureaucracy, and where the US invested billions after the Korean war in FDI and aid.

With all the raving about the RPF’s forward-looking economic reforms, let us not forget that Rwanda is a chiefly agricultural country. Korea and Taiwan developed through export-led-growth and industrialization. By contrast, the RPF’s vision is to grow through a service-based country; this is why they are wiring the country with fiber-optic cables and investing heavily in ICT training institute. But service industry usually serves the business sector, which is still very weak. The country is landlocked – the biggest investment possibilities are in methane gas in Lake Kivu, in coffee and tea, and in the mineral sector in the eastern Congo.

The real question is therefore not whether Rwanda can benefit from growth like Singapore – maybe it can. But let’s ask instead: can the RPF maintain its “enlightened authoritarianism” despite the divisions within its own ranks? Has Kagame’s leadership style resulted in divisions that are so deep that they threaten the stability of the government? Again, I would recommend that donors take a better look inside the black box of internal RPF politics before jumping to conclusions about the country’s future.

I leave you with a quote from two political scientist, Nicholas van de Walle and Michale Bratton, who have written eloquently about democratization in Africa (h/t to Opalo):

“Liberalized authoritarianism…. is an unstable form of regime. Its political openings are easily and summarily shut as strongmen place ever heavier reliance on a shrinking circle of military loyalists. In the worst-case scenarios, blocked or precluded transitions lead to an intensification of political conflict, to anarchy (a regime without rules of any kind) and to the implosion of the authority of the state.”

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