WHEN Paul Kagame led Rwandan rebel forces to victory in 1994, he was praised not only for halting a genocide that had killed half a million people, but also for advocating reconciliation rather than revenge. After he became president in 2000, he was acclaimed as a democratic visionary. Under his leadership, Rwanda is attracting investment, fighting corruption and improving health and education.
But a shadow hangs over Mr. Kagame’s Rwanda, in the form of persistent concern about intimidation of the political opposition. Outspoken journalists and politicians have disappeared or died in mysterious circumstances, while the government insists that some thoughts are too dangerous to permit, in the aftermath of genocide.
This week, a court in the capital, Kigali, postponed — for the third time — a verdict in the trial of the opposition leader Victoire Ingabire. Also this week, a panel of United Nations experts found that top Rwandan military officers had helped organize, finance and arm mutinous rebels across the border, in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Ms. Ingabire, who had lived outside the country since before the genocide and is a member of the Hutu majority, stirred immediate controversy when she returned in 2010 and spoke openly about ethnic politics — a taboo subject since the genocide. She was blocked from running for president. Several weeks after the election, which Mr. Kagame won with 93 percent of the vote, she was arrested for violating a 2008 law that prohibits “genocide ideology.” Ms. Ingabire had suggested that innocent majority Hutus who died during the genocide deserved to be mourned alongside the minority Tutsis who were massacred by Hutu militias. She has said her goal was reconciliation, not historical revisionism.
Ms. Ingabire is only the most recent critic of the Kagame government to face dire consequences. In 2010, Lt. Gen. Faustin Kayumba Nyamwasa, a former Kagame ally, was shot in Johannesburg, where he was living in exile. He survived, but days later, Jean-Léonard Rugambage, deputy editor of the newspaper Umuvugizi, was shot dead in Kigali after it published an online article linking Rwanda’s security forces to the attack in Johannesburg. Two weeks later, another opposition leader, André Kagwa Rwisereka, was found beheaded in southern Rwanda.
The government denied responsibility for any of the attacks, but they fit a pattern of harassment that included a crackdown on independent media.
Mr. Kagame’s resounding victory did not lessen his government’s distaste for criticism. Early last year, two journalists were sentenced to prison for insulting the president and violating the law against “genocide ideology.”
Last November, an online journalist, Charles Ingabire (no relation to Victoire), received death threats and was then fatally shot as he left a bar in Kampala, Uganda, where he had been living in exile. No one has been charged.
Many outsiders find it hard to understand why Mr. Kagame would allow such human rights abuses, when Rwanda needs international support to meet the challenges of overpopulation and a paucity of natural resources. Mr. Kagame has advocated high-tech investment and promoted education in English instead of French. International investment has risen, and transparency has improved. Visitors to Kigali are invariably impressed by the government officials and businessmen they encounter. Most of these Rwandans, like Mr. Kagame, are repatriated refugees from the ethnic Tutsi minority who returned after the genocide.
Some outsiders, mindful of the intense trauma Rwandans suffered 18 years ago, are willing to tolerate the crackdown on dissent as long as economic growth and the appearance of social calm continue.
But that is a mistake. It is time to worry instead that Mr. Kagame is rebuilding the country with authoritarian practices that could ultimately undermine Rwanda’s economic achievements.
His intolerance of dissent stifles the debate and free thought Rwanda needs if it is to become a modern, technologically advanced economy. The coercive nature of his government’s national unity program could someday drag it back into ethnic conflict.
The government says it wants to create a new identity in which all would see themselves as Rwandans, neither Hutu nor Tutsi. But this strikes many Rwandans as an effort to impose a false unity on them while cynically using the threat of renewed violence to strengthen the government’s position.
An inability to speak openly about ethnic feelings allows ethnic resentments to fester as whispers. Many Hutus privately complain not only that Tutsis monopolize the government but that Tutsis are the sole beneficiaries of Rwanda’s growth.
The Kagame government has a rare opportunity to relax its restrictions on freedom of expression. One reason given for extending Ms. Ingabire’s wait for a verdict is that Rwanda’s Supreme Court has yet to hand down a ruling on a challenge to the constitutionality of the “genocide ideology” law. If the government were to amend or rescind the law, it would be a good first step toward welcoming free and responsible debate.
The government should also respond to concerns about its military interference in Congo by acknowledging its role in the conflict there — particularly human rights abuses in eastern Congo from 1998 to 2002 — and by helping to apprehend Bosco Ntaganda, a Rwandan and a protégé of the Kagame government, whom the International Criminal Court has indicted for war crimes.
Steps like these could safeguard Rwanda’s reputation as an innovative leader for East Africa. In the end, Mr. Kagame’s reaction to growing criticism this summer will show whether he is truly committed to Rwanda’s transformation, or only to preserving his power.