The view that Rwanda is a police state is such an entrenched position among critics of President Paul Kagame that it has become gospel truth. Last week on my radio talk show on KFM, I showed panelists videos of police in Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya mercilessly beating up demonstrators. I told them I have never seen a Rwanda police officer beat a civilian thereby letting lose the dogs of intellectual and emotional war. If I had not been a dictatorial moderator, my views would have been drowned in the ensuing uproar. All the panelists said this is because Rwanda is a police state where people lack the freedom to challenge government.
There are ways to test a hypothesis that a country has a police state. One way is to identify a neutral, abstract and universal standard. One such standard is the “Freedom Index” developed by Freedom House, a Washington DC based think tank. On this, Rwanda scores badly. In 2015, it’s ranking on civil liberties declined from Five in 2014 to Six (One being most free, Seven most repressive). But is the notion of freedom independent of context?
There is a better way to address the issue of freedom i.e. use a subjective test and ask the people subject to a particular political regime whether they feel free or not. This avoids the risk of deductively constructed concepts that disregard context. For example, we can pick an American who died in the 1970s to travel through airports in the USA today. What would she think of all the rigorous security checks, bordering on the absurd that travellers are subjected to today and have never been asked to consent to?
This leads us to the second issue in this debate: is freedom an objective notion or a subjective feeling? Last year, IPSOS, a French international polling firm, did a poll in Rwanda asking people what they think about freedom: 76% said the media were free or somewhat free; 83% said they felt free or somewhat free to express themselves on any political issue, 82% said they felt their country is a fully or partly democratic, 91% said they participate in the political process especially through their local councils, 90% said elections are free and fair etc. Gallup Poll and the World Values Survey (WVS) have done similar polling and gotten similar results.
Why do Rwandans feel free when indexes based on abstract standards of freedom show them as living under the tight grip of an autocrat? The panelists on my radio show said Rwandans are terrified of their police state – so they falsify their feelings to pollsters. Is this really the case? Let us look at the same 2015 IPSOS poll: 56% said they have little confidence in government efforts to combat joblessness while 60% said they did not have confidence in government efforts to combat poverty. When asked what would happen if a powerful politician committed a crime, 90% said he would be arrested by police. However, 49% said they would be released upon paying a bribe to police; 45% said he would be released upon the intervention of a powerful politician.
If Rwandans are terrified of the state, why did this high number feel free to criticize government on the economy but not elections or freedom and to accuse police of corruption and powerful politicians of peddling influence? There is another poll that is indicative. The WVS asked people around the world how often citizens complained to public officials about government services. Rwanda had the highest complaint rate in the world. It is tempting to this is because public services in Rwanda are the worst in the world. But we know it has the best public services of any country within its comparison group – even among those much richer than it.
Therefore, the high complaint rate is evidence that Rwandans are not afraid to complain to their public officials about things that bother them. It also shows high levels of citizen trust in the responsiveness of public officials to popular demands. In both cases, claims of fear of the state by citizens collapse. Besides, we know that educated and skilled people prefer freedom more than illiterate peasants. Therefore a repressive state would see an exodus of the most educated and skilled. In 2015, the World Economic Forum did a study that found Rwanda has the lowest level of brain drain and the highest level of brain-gain in Africa. Rwanda’s, Africa’s and the world’s educated people have voted to live and work in Rwanda. Surely they could not have voted for repression.
The government of Rwanda is also at the forefront of spreading internet access to the far reaches of the country. Today, Rwanda has the highest density of fiber optic cables of any country in the developing world, including China and India. The government is actively promoting access to computers with its One-Laptop-Per-Child policy. It is now spearheading the assembly and manufacture of computers, smartphones and tablets. The government is also actively promoting use of social media especially Twitter. In the face of these facts, how can anyone in their right mind claim that these are actions of a repressive state?
Of course there are many restrictions on freedom in Rwanda. For instance, no one is free to campaign on an ethnic platform. Any attempt to do so attracts high political sanctions including jail. Rwandans feel their country is free not because there are no restrictions on freedom but because their history and context makes them accept such restrictions as necessary for national survival, unity and stability. It is the same with travellers in airports. Most of us accept draconian and arbitrary searches seeing them as necessary for our safety. Few Americans going through their airports feel their country is governed by a Gestapo. If there had been no 9/11, many Americans would have protested as draconian the security procedures in their airports.
Andrew M. Mwenda is the founding Managing Editor of The Independent, Uganda’s premier current affairs newsmagazine. One of Foreign Policy magazine 's top 100 Global Thinkers, TED Speaker and Foreign aid Critic