ANTWERP, Belgium — There is an election in Rwanda on Friday, but its outcome already is nearly certain: President Paul Kagame will win a third seven-year term. Elections there are not a contest for power. They are the ritual confirmation of the power in place.
Mr. Kagame generally wins by margins that would make a dictator proud: In 2010, he scored some 93 percent of the vote. He is the only ruler most Rwandans born since the 1994 genocide know. The Rwandans who remember leaders before him have reason to wonder if they will ever see another: The state’s mighty security apparatus is quietly eloquent, with all those soldiers and police officers routinely patrolling both city streets and the countryside.
Mr. Kagame is up against two innocuous candidates after the national election commission disqualified Diane Rwigara, his strongest opponent, and two other independent contenders. The opposition leader Victoire Ingabire, who was placed under house arrest in the lead-up to the 2010 election, is now in jail serving a dubious 15-year sentence for threatening state security, among other things. Journalists have also been intimidated and stifled; Freedom House categorizes Rwanda as “not free.”
Mr. Kagame wasn’t supposed to run this time because he would be coming up against the two-term limit set by the Constitution. But in 2015 the government proposed an amendment and had it sanctioned in a referendum (roundly criticized by human rights groups), opening the way for Mr. Kagame to stand for re-election this year — and again until 2034.
Burundi was condemned internationally in 2015 after President Pierre Nkurunziza flouted term limits to run for a third mandate. Last year, President Joseph Kabila of the Democratic Republic of Congo skirted term restrictions by simply delaying the next election, triggering protests and then a crackdown that led to sanctions against his government. Yet nothing of the sort has happened to Mr. Kagame or his administration despite its ploys to keep him in power basically unchallenged.
Why? Because Mr. Kagame has been masterful at deflecting criticism of his illiberalism by pointing to Rwanda’s economic performance. The country is touted as a model: The government claims that the economy grew by an average of about 8 percent a year between 2001 and 2014, and that the rate of poverty dropped from nearly 57 percent in 2006 to less than 40 percent in 2014. Neither Mr. Nkurunziza nor Mr. Kabila could proffer such results.
Mr. Kagame’s supporters, in Rwanda and beyond, sing to his tune. In a way, they have to. Western donors and international organizations may well prefer democratic values to big-man politics. But having poured great sums of money into Rwanda since the 1994 genocide, they want to be impressed by the headway Mr. Kagame claims to have made — on economic growth and poverty reduction, but also maternal health care and the prosecution of suspected mass killers. Asia has tigers; now Africa has found its lion. Many want to believe that while Mr. Kagame may have been cutting corners on democracy, he has delivered on development.
Has he, though?
In fact, his government’s record is shakier than it looks, including on some of the major achievements it is credited with.
Consider poverty reduction. Back in 2005, I was stationed in Rwanda with a World Bank team, working on a large-scale study of poverty. Six months into it, after we had collected hundreds of survey questionnaires about the well-being of ordinary Rwandans and conducted hundreds of discussions with villagers, the Rwandan security forces seized half of our files on the pretext that our research’s design was tainted by “genocide ideology” — a vague notion supposedly something like sectarianism that the government often invokes to criminalize what it sees as challenges to its authority. After lengthy negotiations between World Bank and Rwandan officials, the project was abandoned. We never determined what the poverty trends were: The information we had collected was destroyed before it could be analyzed.
Matters have hardly improved. Major studies can only be carried out by the Rwandan authorities or under their close supervision. Independent researchers have come to question the government’s methodology for analyzing data.
Officially, the poverty rate decreased by nearly 6 percentage points between 2011 and 2014. But Filip Reyntjens, a Rwanda expert at the University of Antwerp, has argued that it might actually have increased by about 6 percentage points during that period. Several articles published by the Review of African Political Economy also challenge Rwanda’s official poverty figures, as well as its G.D.P. growth rates.
I’m of the view that expanding individual freedoms is essential, not incidental, to a country’s long-term development. As Angus Deaton, a Nobel laureate in economics, said to a Rwandan minister in 2015, “improvements in public health can never be truly secure in nondemocratic states.” But I concede that Rwanda has made remarkable economic progress since facing near-total destruction in 1994, and that some think it is still worth debating the merits of trade-offs between democracy and development.
Whatever one thinks of these issues, however, everyone should be concerned that the Kagame government has been fudging, hiding or selectively presenting the raw facts of its economic record. Rwanda may be forgoing democracy for development only to wind up with no democracy and far less development than many think.