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THE LAST WORD: Inside Rwanda’s police state

FILE PHOTO: President Kagame joins Masaka residents in Umuganda to build homes for the vulnerable - Kicukiro, 22 February 2014
FILE PHOTO: President Kagame joins Masaka residents in Umuganda to build homes for the vulnerable – Kicukiro, 22 February 2014

Why Rwandans tell pollsters they are free while abstract standards of freedom say the country is repressive

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?

In the same 2015 index, Freedom House gave the US a score of One (most free) notwithstanding mass surveillance programs against its citizens, corporate control of the media, daily police killings of unarmed civilians, mass incarceration of minorities, arbitrary police stops and searches, power being monopolized by only two political parties etc. So why does America score highly on the freedom index?

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.

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.

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.

Rwanda is not North Korea or Saudi Arabia to exercise the repression associated with it. It has many of the elements of a free country. For example, anyone can fly into it without a visa (Africans) or get it at the border (others). There are many newspapers and radio stations which public and broadcast all sorts of nasty things against the government. If Rwandan journalists feel intimidated, foreign journalists are free to roam around and report as they wish.

Indeed, the Rwanda government has actively sought to expand political participation and democratic debate through local councils up to the village level and through initiatives such as Umuganura, Umuganda, Ubudehe, Umuketano, Gacaca, Umushyikirano, Abunzi, Umwiherero, Itolero, etc. These are all traditional participatory mechanisms where Rwandans debate public issues but do not fit the mechanisms prescribed for us by Washington, London and Paris. Perhaps this is what has led Ugandan journalists to view police brutality in Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania as a sign of freedom and police decency in Rwanda as a sign of repression. Rwanda’s democracy does not adhere to rituals.

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.





  1. Rwanda is a camp gripped with fear. Those who had showed dissent in 2015 had been “disciplined” by 2016, that explains the difference in the polls. Non of what you mention here Andrew is true. There is no press freedom in Rwanda. The mantra of the genocide has been used to crackdown on even the slightest of criticisms against the government. It is considered by the regime as “revisionism” and quickly cracked down on. The authorities use laws against “genocide ideology” and “sectarianism” to punish freedom of expression, which leads to self-censorship. The media is not very diverse and is concentrated in Kigali. Some outlets are privately-owned but government-controlled ones (Radio Rwanda and the national TV station TVR) dominate and some independent newspapers have had to close down. Relations between the government and foreign media are also very difficult. After breaking off diplomatic ties with France in 2006, the government ordered the Radio France Internationale transmitter to close down and expelled its correspondent. In 2009 and 2014, it temporarily suspended BBC relay broadcasts in Kinyarwanda after the station broadcast statements by Rwandans about the genocide.The government exerts strong pressure
    (though it denies it) on the independent media. President Kagame has for several years been on the Reporters Without Borders worldwide list of “predators” of press freedom.
    He affects to be modern-minded and is one of the most visible African leaders online (Facebook, viral propaganda and many sites supporting him) but this apparently open spirit is not real.The 2010 presidential election that saw Kagame re-elected with 93% of the vote took place in very bad conditions for the media. The country’s two main newspapers at the time (both anti-government), Umuseso and Umuvugizi, were shut down for six months by the regime-controlled Media High Council. Several journalists were given prison sentences while others fled the country. Jean-Léonard Rugambage, deputy editor of Umuvugizi, was shot dead in front of his home in Kigali on 24 June 2010. It is not okay even on the economic side of things. For instance, on electricity, Commercial consumers account for 1% of the total consumers which include the production of cement, textiles, metal processing, beer, tea and coffee processing, and sugar. Per Capita consumption of electricity in Rwanda is among the lowest in the world based on 67,000 consumers (out of a population of 10 million). Two thirds of the consumers are in and around Kigali, the Country’s capital. By and large, the optic fibre cables are lying idle in the mountainous soils of that Country. If you want to believe what Andrew has written, then, you should be pointing at the Stockholm syndrome. The victims are pouring elixir onto their captors. That should cause worry and not celebrations.

    • Rajabu remember also to not hold Rwanda liable in Isolation,Rwanda belongs in Africa in particular east Africa.I personally regard Rwanda a 22 years old nation and its competing with nearly all members of African continent.That alone is a mileage of its own precision.

      your critics are based on media alone as if its only a single indicator of development.

      Look at other areas too..isn’t Rwanda doing better in health system than USA….isn’t Rwanda contributing higher on peace keeping mission than most of African states…..Would you deny Rwanda good governance standards in comparison to neighbours?

      We may agree to hang the poor without hanging his rights.Rwanda is a symbol of renaissance in Africa

      • Your symbolism of renaissance is based on rather shallow grounds. What transition has there been in Rwanda’s political sphere? (From Kagame to Kagame?) What transition has Rwanda witnessed in the economic sphere? (From being an agricultural economy to industry?). When you state that Rwanda is only 22 years, you fall into the RPF mentality trap of rewriting history. At the end of the 80s, Rwanda ranked 3rd as the fastest growing economies on the African continent. Rwanda’s problem has been a “selfishness” in its leadership coupled with a “selfishness” in sharing of the meagre resources. The CHANGES that are so OVERT to you, is veneer that will soon be washed away when faced with a storm.

        • I thought it was a debating battle;if its a threatening battle let me rest my comments.However as prime Minister Netanyahu bolded,Rwanda will never outsource its security.We owe a thing nobody!!

          • It depends on what you call “threats”, I call it “throwing caution to the wind.” “We owe a thing nobody!!” You owe something to your citizenry and your future generations but most importantly, your actions impact on humanity. Just caution; remember?

      • yullian i may agree with the steady progress view of rwanda but to say Rwanda started 20 years ago is to miss the point. Rwanda has always been there and inspite of the descrimination and killings of minority Tutsi in reciprocation of the Tutsi brutality as partners of the belgians during colonialism, both of which acts are regretable, habyariman did his best. E.g the famous Rwanda cleaniliness was evident during habyarimana reign, was it not? I feel bad that Rwandans want to rewrite history like the NRm wants us to beleive ugandan started when they came to power. abit of honesty will save us future conflicts.

  2. 1.No one has ever asked me questions regarding democracy and governance issues in ug so how can one ask such qns in Rwanda?i strongly believe that results of such polls are fake and what do they gain from these polls? .
    2.Its good that businessmen in Ug are suffering financially this is coz they are not honest i recently read the conditions of sales of roofings products mbu goods once sold can’t be returned even if a customer finds them with some damage. secondly that their rates depends on the dollar rate who does not know that big businessmen import when the dollar rate is low & that they normally purchase their raw materials in bulk?
    3.Govt should address the issue of agricultural products and think hard on what to export we should bear in mind that most developed use genetically modified products & the world prices of minerals is currently which market are we targeting??

  3. 4.The story making news is Margaret’s revelation that she paid 10 billion for the UBC land no one watches UBC why r they so concerned about their land? besides it was not taken for free. i personally have no issues with people being wealthy coz i know its soooooo easy to get rich e.g i graduated when i was 20 years of age and i had approximately 600 million on my savings account yet i had no job how did i get this kind of money?my parents saved 600 pounds per month for me till i completed Education that’s why even if some tells me they have 500 bn in their account i will not be surprised.
    5. Extravagant Twitter idlers like Fredrick Tumusiime and Sara Nalunga are outdoing themselves in blasting Margaret for Fredrick i can excuse him coz he is by profession a specialist in Sewage drainage this partly clouds his reasoning and Sara could be complain coz Margaret is prettier than her.

  4. I think trying to compare the US and Rwanda on freedom, and then concluding that the US is not free, is disingenuous. Mwenda would fully support the American airport searches if they were happening here or in Rwanda, given why they are happening. They did not just spring out of the air. As for the shootings of black people, an amplified issue (by the media) does not mean it is as widespread as it is reported on. There is corporate control of the media in the US… and everywhere. Most importantly, you have platforms like Gawker, HuffPo etc etc which have been started by individuals. And many more like them. (Try starting a blog as irreverent as Gawker in Kigali and see where you will end up). Which country does not surveil its citizens? Uganda does. Rwanda does. The US was forced because of terrorism. I wonder why he does not mention the survey that shows that a good number of American people don’t really mind being surveilled: they know why it is done. The most important thing is what you use the information for.

    In short, the USA is not perfect. No nation is perfect. But on the scales of imperfectness, countries like Rwanda and Uganda perform far worse. That is a very important distinction this article misses.

  5. Putting aside the propaganda covered various quotations here and there. Let’s try to see how police states functions in everyday life through using evasive means to determine the targeted out come, especially in our developing countries. For instance, look at the photography above do those people appear to be free? We should never forget by nature human beings when we’re in the crowd we sometimes get carried away by emotions, why you see some smiling. Obviously you can read through their faces and the way there were stage managed by their local authorities. Once again, look at the desks barrier placed between citizens and their leader, is that an indication of a free society? Moreover in the middle of the field. the salience of sense of freedom obviously varies from those controlled and controller. To me the picture above shows evidence in the police state. Contrary, to the way citizens are supposed to feel free with their leader. Far from freedom but, rather controlled or managed in a powerful state machinery. Undoubtedly an indication pointing to how police states cunningly target particular groups in an obscure manner to hide the true picture of how state police uses divisive means, initially starts from local forces sanctions their local communities what to do and say without questioning or reasoning with authorities. Local authorities are used purposely to paint a positive image for public consumption, whereas the military and police forces hides behind local leaders to sanction strategic projected out-come. This is to show the public arena as if every decision and action taken to have been initiated by citizens themselves.

  6. As a Ugandan who has lived in Rwanda, I strongly concur with Andrew about the highly levels of professionalism in the Rwanda Police Force. One time on a visit to the National Police Headquarters Campus, I recall every single policeman, senior and Junior, I met on the campus politely stopping me in my tracks and inquiring whether-I had been served. This service culture and strong institutional ethics, I had never experienced all my life.

    However, it should be noted that society in Rwanda is generally very law abiding(meek, if you like). Whether this is the cause of police professionalism (police don’t need to get out their way to enforce law and order) or the result (police command so much public respect that the citizenry cannot dare cross their path) is debatable.

  7. As a Rwandan born and lived in Uganda for 20 years, i have seen organised and unruly societies in EAC. Rwanda has law bidding citizens while Ugandans and Burundians are disorganized even when they have a common goal to achieve. Such unruly character will be called democracy or free society by those who criticize Rwandans’ humble approach. There is no uniformity in the way societies behave well knowing that the society’s organisation impacts on its well being in one way or the other. It is in Rwanda where army and Police meet residents to construct classrooms, hospitals, houses for the poor, roads, etc. And who is the beneficiary? So, i would not mind a Police State like Rwanda where the end result is for all to enjoy. But again, why should i be proud of such societies who will always oppose/demonstrate against every policy put there for their own good? What if the Police were involved in developmental issues like putting up infrastructure instead of spending entire life fighting chaotic citizens…

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