With its lasting peace and stable growth, Rwanda is the prodigal child of sub-Saharan African development. Yet 25 years ago, the country went through one of the worst genocides in world history. Is the “Rwandan miracle” a mirage?

©Crystaline Randazzo – Bread for the World

Dropping poverty rate, life expectancy doubled since 2001, primary school enrollment skyrocketing at 98%… When one takes a look at Rwanda’s development indicators, it seems hard to believe that merely 25 years ago, the country of a thousand hills was the theater of the last genocide of the 20th century. In 100 days, 800 000 people, mostly Tutsis, were massacred. This violent outbreak was the climax of the political and economical instability caused by the civil war.

The “Rwandan miracle”: an example of development

The life expectancy of Rwandans rose from 49 to 67 years between 2001 and 2017. The country is close to reaching its goal for universal primary education. The poverty rate has been lowered by five points between 2011 and 2014, the average income per capita has more than quadrupled since 1994. All of this while maintaining a stable Gini coefficient at 0.44. This measure of inequality reaches 0.63 in South Africa, where inequality is very high, and drops between 0.25 and 0.30 in countries like Sweden, known to have low inequality.

Not only is the country, with its capital Kigali, involved in a spectacular development dynamic, it is also setting an example for developing economies all across the African continent. The GDP has been multiplied by six in 20 years, with a growth rate higher than 7% each year. The World Bank ranks Rwanda 29th out of 190 for the ease of doing business, which makes it the second African country in the rating after Mauritius. Transparency International also counts it among the least corrupted countries in the continent.

And that’s not all: the country is a pioneer in several fields. It is the world champion of parliament parity, with 64% of house seats held by women. As environmental policy goes, it’s ahead of its time since it outlawed plastic bags in 2004. It was the first country in the world to make this decision.

From miracle to mirage? The limits of its reconstruction model

How has this country and its inhabitants managed to bounce back so quickly (and so well) from the 1994 massacres? The former vice-President and member of the Rwandan Patriotic Front, Paul Kagame, has been head of the country since 2000. During genocide commemoration ceremonies, he flaunts the lasting unity of the Rwandan people to the world. The reconciliation and reconstruction processes are now part of the people’s daily life in this country where it is no longer legal to refer to oneself as Hutu or Tutsi. The events of 1994 are also taught to schoolchildren free of taboos. In the genocide aftermath, citizens participated in Gacaca community courts, which helped unclog prisons and initiate a community dialogue on the traumatic past. The last Saturday of each month since 1998, umuganda community service gathers citizens–former perpetrators, former victims, and their children–so that they may participate together in the national reconstruction.

But this “Rwandan miracle” can be seen as a mirage when one looks at Rwanda’s very low democracy index. It is lower than 4, which makes the country an authoritarian regime and ranks it 128 out of 167 in the world in terms of democracy. Press freedom is also very limited there, according to the last Reporters without borders report, which ranks the country 155 out of 180. Political opposition is close to inexistent in a country where Paul Kagame has been reelected for a third mandate in 2017 with 99% of the votes. Forced into exile or into silence, the opposition is the victim of suspicious disappearances, threats and regular attacks of which Freedom House keeps track. During the last elections, Amnesty International called out the climate of fear instigated by the government: “Two decades of attacks on the political opposition, independent media and human rights defenders have created a climate of fear in Rwanda.”

Researchers question the political stability which has been installed over the past twenty years and the possibility of lasting economic growth. The country which dreams of becoming an “African Singapore” has undeniably accomplished a lot, but it may need to open up–to the private sector, to diversity, to critical thinking, to debate–in order to guarantee the reality and the permanence of its acclaimed miracle.



The opinions expressed on this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official position of their institutions or of AFD.

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