WHEN Paul Kagame was 28, he helped topple the government of Uganda. At 36 he overthrew the government of Rwanda. At 39 he ousted the government of Congo (which was then called Zaire).
It is hard to think of another leader who has won so many wars, against such repulsive enemies, on such a tight budget.
Mr Kagame is perhaps the most successful general alive, and this is only part of his claim to renown. The boy whose first memories included watching his village burn, and who went to school in a refugee camp, grew up to stop a genocide.
As a rebel, he said he had no political ambitions. He has now ruled Rwanda for 23 years, during which the country has been transformed from a blood-spattered wreck to an orderly society with robust economic growth, falling poverty and declining inequality. Many African leaders see him as a model to emulate. He is not.
Granted, first impressions of President Kagame’s Rwanda are often excellent. The streets are clean and safe. The traffic cops are honest. Officials welcome foreign investors and innovators. There is much talk of respect for women’s rights.
“If oppressed women should wage a war, I would readily smuggle ammunition to them, for it would be a justified war,” Mr Kagame once said. Donors swoon when they hear that 56% of Rwandan MPs are female—the highest share in the world.
Yet there is another side to the Rwandan miracle that has so impressed the Davos crowd. Rwanda is a police state (see article). The media are stifled. Members of opposition parties are harassed and occasionally murdered.
Senior defectors from the regime typically flee abroad, where they are still not safe. A former intelligence chief was strangled in a luxury hotel room in South Africa; a former interior minister was shot dead in Kenya. The parliament that boasts so many women is little more than a rubber-stamp.
On August 4th Rwandans will re-elect Mr Kagame. The outcome is not in doubt. He has always won more than 90% of the vote in the past. His opponents are largely prevented from campaigning.
He was barred by the constitution from standing again this year, but a “spontaneous” petition to let him do so attracted only ten “no” votes in a country of 11m.
The petition was followed by a referendum in which 98% of voters gave him the go-ahead. He could remain in charge until 2034. That is a terrible idea. Rulers seldom improve in their second decade in power, let alone their third or fourth.
The problem from hell
Any fair assessment of Mr Kagame’s record must start by noting that, 23 years ago, he took over a country that looked ungovernable. The population was 85% Hutu at the time of the genocide, and probably most Hutus either took part in or did nothing to prevent the killing of 500,000 mostly Tutsi victims.
Mr Kagame, leading an army of Tutsi exiles, fought his way to power with one aim—to prevent a repeat of the genocide. He has pursued it with ruthless singlemindedness. When the genocidal Hutu militias fled into Congo, he hunted and slaughtered them.
When the Congolese government abetted the génocidaires, he overthrew it. When the next Congolese government made the same mistake, he tried to overthrow it, too, sparking a many-sided war in Congo that killed millions.
Mr Kagame no longer meddles as much abroad, partly because donors leant on him but mostly because he has wiped out his greatest external threats. At home, however, he maintains a suffocating grip over his people, fretting that if he lets go, they will rise up and wipe out the ruling Tutsi elite.
His party, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), has eyes in every village, and enforces obedience through fear. Peasants face ruinous fines for minor offences, such as looking scruffy or refusing to dig communal ditches.
Any criticism of the RPF can be deemed “divisionism”, or incitement to genocide. Speech is less free in Rwanda than in any other African country, except Eritrea. “Everything is taboo,” says one opposition candidate who has been barred from running for president.
No man is indispensable
There is much that Mr Kagame gets right. If other poor countries wanted to learn from the way he has rolled out basic health insurance or held cabinet ministers accountable for measurable targets, that would be fine, and donors should support such things in Rwanda and elsewhere.
But for many poor-country potentates, the appeal of the Rwandan model is precisely the unchecked power that it bestows on the president and his party. Some cite Rwanda, along with China and perhaps Ethiopia, as evidence that authoritarianism is more likely than democracy to bring stability and growth.
This is self-serving and dangerous. All Rwanda’s bursts of ethnic slaughter since its independence took place under authoritarian regimes, as did those in next-door Burundi, which has a similar ethnic make-up. Silencing alternative voices does not banish discontent; it bottles it up. Rwanda must allow more space for dissent or risk an explosion in the future.
This article appeared in the Leaders section of the print edition under the headline "Intimidation nation"