In 2009 I visited North Kivu in the eastern , a region that for decades has been locked in a seemingly intractable conflict. Peacemaking had for a long time seemed an impossible task. , the UN force deployed to the region – lacking proper helicopter lift capacity and struggling with the vast and impenetrable jungle – had been unable to fulfil even the most basic duties of civilian protection.
The state capital, Goma, a town struck by conflict and natural disasters, swarming with eager NGOs and UN staff flitting from Land Cruisers to pizza restaurants, is almost a caricature. It lies just a few short kilometres from the border with Rwanda, and it was through that porous boundary in 1994 that Rwandan refugees poured . The same ethnic, political and economic divisions that sparked those massacres span that border, and have contributed to years of persistent violence.
Last year, however, there was optimism. After years of colluding with destabilising forces and running what has been described as a proxy war in the Kivus, Rwanda had come on side. The Rwandan armed forces joined an offensive in North Kivu to dislodge the , an insurgent group once a proxy of Kinshasa and formed of local militias and Hutus fleeing retribution post-genocide.
With entente in the air, the development community began to show renewed optimism. Western diplomats that I spoke with at the time were adamant that it was their new approach that had triumphed, the "3D" process combining defence, diplomacy and development that was forged in the aftermath of the invasion of Afghanistan.
In stark contrast to the eastern DRC, Rwanda has been transformed in the 15 years since the end of the genocide. The country has registered year-on-year economic growth, opened up for investment and integrated into its regional community. Furthermore, the country has begun to act as a constructive interlocutor in the region and in African affairs. Central to this transformation has been the Rwandan president, .
Under Kagame's leadership, the Rwandan Patriotic Front took , the capital, and ended the genocide in July 1994. Six years later, he was elected president and put Rwanda on a path where, a decade on, its narrative has been decoupled from its tragic history. For the past couple of years in particular, Rwanda has been the exemplary case for Africa's resurgence.
True, there are several big and stable economies that better demonstrate the opportunities on the continent, but Rwanda was the little country that, without its own natural resources and despite its past, showed that the right policies, the right ideas and the right leadership could and transform a whole nation.
Signs at Kigali airport remind travellers that, these days, plastic bags are banned. The Hôtel des Milles Collines, of fame, is an idyll among the eponymous Thousand Hills, broken only by the construction site next door where it is being extended. On the last Saturday of every month, whole communities come out to participate in , a community service "festival" that sees streets cleaned and personal and communal concerns discussed.
Since 2001, have been used to push through the process of reconciliation that has seen perpetrators and victims of the genocide work side by side in bringing the country forward. Its history has been brutal and tragic, yes, but Rwanda has transcended that history.
Politically, though, there is limited space for dissent. Kagame's government has been characterised as a benign autocracy masquerading as a democracy. This was a description that I did not previously agree with. We have a habit of making exactly this assumption – an African leader who appears popular cannot be so; a regime that maintains central control must be repressive. The sense that I got in the bars – and particularly in the offices – of Kigali was that this was a man with the backing of his constituents.
I interviewed Kagame in November last year. In person he is a compelling figure, quietly charismatic, articulate and adamant that the country should be judged on its ability to reform itself, that governance should not be imposed by outside powers but driven by a domestic desire for self-determination. Democracy and political inclusion were the logical end of economic development, he explained, and he was unapologetic that is only on that path, not at the end of it.
Rwanda goes to the polls in a matter of weeks. On Wednesday, Andre Kagwa Rwisereka, a senior opposition figure, . Two other critics of Kagame have been attacked. A few weeks ago, , a journalist, was killed. Last month, the former general Kayumba Nyamwasa was in South Africa. The Rwandan government denies any involvement.
This is a critical time for Rwanda. This year, there have been figures who have sought to highlight the old ethnic divisions that once tore Rwanda apart and exploit them for political gain. Managing contemporary Rwanda has meant finding a firm and rational response to these attempts without giving credence to their rhetoric. The government needed to – and initially seemed to find – just such a response.
for the most recent round of violence has created a colossal problem for Kagame's government. Where political grievances are conflated with ethnic divisions, logic and reason are the first of many casualties.
This is a big test for how robust Rwanda's reconciliation process has been. Will all this unravel? Doom-laden predictions in a press that almost seems to be urging the country to fail must be moderated with an understanding of the vast complexity of that country today.
Rwanda matters too much to be dismissed as an autocracy or to be branded as a place of inevitable collapse. Kagame will win this election. The manner in which he does so will define his legacy as a leader and the progress of his country.