This is part of a series where I write about my stay in Rwanda and Uganda and what I learned that might be helpful from an EA perspective.
You can see the full list of articles here, which I will add to as they come out.
What’s it like living in a benevolent semi-police state? Rwanda is an example of such a country, and given my experience there, I think it’s surprisingly good, but it definitely had some scary aspects. Let me explain my thought process.
Kagame, the president, has “99% support” in the polls. I often laugh at “presidents” touting these numbers. Who do they think they’re fooling? No matter how good you are, you can never get that approval rating, so if it’s that high, you are definitely doing something decidedly undemocratic. In the case of Kagame, I actually genuinely think he’s done a lot of good and I suspect if he had a genuine election, he would still win. Just not at 99%.
He is a strange character. He runs a tight ship with famously low corruption in a part of the world where corruption is the rule. He sets high expectations for government officials and holds them accountable to getting results. He fired a minister because the minister shoved a guard and nobody is above the law. Compare this to India where an absurd number of elected officials have ongoing court cases going on against them, including extremely serious things like rape and murder. Or neighboring Kenya, where virtually all politics is corrupt, or the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which is essentially chaos incarnate.
His government is 50% women, and he is famous for being meritocratic. He is the darling of NGOs because his educated civil service is keen on technocracy and learning from global best practices. The justice system is decently functional and you can tell. People follow traffic rules, motorcyclists wear helmets and the taxi motorcycles all carry an extra helmet for passengers. The capital city is very clean. It’s cleaner than many American cities I’ve visited. There are no beggars or illegal shops on the side of the road.
On the other hand, Rwanda is also a police state. The reason there are no beggars on the streets is because they are rounded up and put into camps. A sizable proportion is under some manner of employ with the government. This is for providing well-run government services, but it is also used to monitor the population.
The press, of course, is not allowed to criticize the government. But it’s not only the press. That’s often rather standard in developing world contexts. No, the scary thing is that you aren’t really allowed, in an unofficial sense, to criticize the government privately. When I asked people about something to do with the government, people would immediately lower their voices, look around quickly to see if anybody could hear, and speak in low voices. If there was a door nearby they would close it. The interesting thing is that this would happen even if what they said next was positive. This was decidedly eerie.
Nothing so eerie as the next event. I was on a Skype call with a German anthropologist who had spent several years in the region. She was young, smart, cheerful, and the sort of person who you’d have trouble disliking. I was trying to learn from her experiences, and suddenly she turned from bouncy to very serious. She said, “My friends have told me about what you’re doing and they asked me to talk to you. This is stuff you won’t read about or hear.”
The drastic shift in tone put me on edge. It would be like if I had abruptly switched from telling people about my latest travelling misadventures to telling somebody that they had cancer and it was terminal. “What do you want to tell me?”
“You have to be really careful what you ask in Rwanda. There are unspoken rules, and if you say the wrong thing, you can end up being disappeared.”
I had heard of this, but I wasn’t too worried. Things like this can happen in India too, but if you’re an expat you simply get kicked out of the country. Countries don’t want to risk international incidents.
“Oh yeah, I’ve read about that. But that doesn’t happen to expat NGO workers does it?”
“It happened to me.”
And then the connection cut out.
The feeling I felt then was hard to describe. It was extreme anxiety, but combined with a sense of nausea and distrust. If it was a color, it would have been a rolling ball of black and grimey green rolling in my gut. It wasn’t a clear flash of fear like when you realize there’s a spider on you. It wasn’t the resigned feeling of distrust when a smiling car salesman comes your way. It wasn’t the nose wrinkling disgust when you catch a whiff of sewage. It was all of those things at once and a whole lot more distressing. It felt a bit like a horror movie.
I hate horror movies.
Thoughts rushed through my head. They would think I was doing official research without a visa. I was going to go to prison. Torture can happen in prisons here. My family wouldn’t know where I’d gone. I couldn’t call anybody or google anything because maybe they were monitoring the internet. I couldn’t get on a plane because they would be able to find me there. What had happened to my friend? Surely she was safe in Germany. What if I got out but I was traumatized for life? What if the guards of my building were coming for me right now?
It turns out that her internet connection was just sketchy and she came back in a minute.
However, that was perhaps the most scared I’ve ever been in my life, and that was just one minute of something that could have been Orwellian but wasn’t. I was a citizen of a wealthy country who I trust would help me if I was in trouble, daughter of a competent family who I think would move mountains to save me, and a person who believes people are good and trustworthy and has been rewarded her whole life for this belief. And still it only took me one minute in a police state to start not trusting anybody. I can only imagine the psychological effects of being in this environment your entire life.
On the other hand, it is a predominantly benevolent police state, and it reminds me of a conversation I had with a jolly Bulgarian Uber driver in London. I was talking to him about the changes that had happened after Bulgaria switched from communism to democracy and capitalism. “It was a terrible change!” he said with passion. “Things were better under communism. Sure, you had to say exactly what the party said, but who cares? We had a guaranteed job, education, and things ran smoothly.”
Perhaps this is the mentality of many Rwandans? After all, caring about politics is often only a luxury you can afford once you’ve gotten the basic necessities down. I think running the country with a tight fist has perhaps been responsible for its incredible turnaround from civil war-torn to the “Singapore of Africa”. Singapore might be an apt description too, given Singapore’s “president” has done amazing things for Singapore. In fact, both are listed on Wikipedia’s article on benevolent dictators. Perhaps Kagame was what Rwanda needed (and still needs?) after so much chaos and conflict, and once things are properly stable, they might switch to more free speech and genuine democracy. It’s hard to tell, but I’m certainly more open to the idea of choosing order and police state over chaos and democracy than I was before going there.
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I'm an effective altruist who co-founded Charity Science Health and Charity Entrepreneurship.