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The Lee Hypothesis claims that authoritarian systems are much better at fostering development as compared to consultative, democratic ones. This hypothesis is named after Lee Kuan Yew, the first Prime Minister of the Republic of Singapore. Supporters point to the remarkable progress in poverty alleviation made by China, another authoritarian state, while alluding to the innumerable delays and difficulties faced by India to get anything going.  It is not only economists who forward the hypothesis, development workers do it too.

On a personal front I have had issues with that stand. I have always believed that democracy, while not the perfect system, was probably the best we had as on date. I never believed in the concept of a ‘benign dictator’ a term which, to me, is oxymoronic. I have been, and to a large extent even now am, a great believer in freedom of expression and right to dissent, which authoritarian rules proscribe.  I have been very rigid on this position for as long as I remember.

However, in the recent past I have had reason to question the rigidity of my stand.  Random thoughts kept swirling through my mind. Perhaps,

  • Not all Authoritarian rules are bad!
  • Sometimes a country does NEED strong leadership!

Why the questions, you may ask?

Well, what happened was that I spent a few days in Rwanda. Had occasion to travel around a bit and talk to Rwandans. My travels in other East African countries had created a mental image of what Rwanda would be like.  But what I saw was a shock to my system. It was nothing like what I had imagined. What I saw was remarkable and perhaps unique in the developing world; decent roads, disciplined traffic, absolutely no litter anywhere, tin-roofed homes in rural areas, latrines in every rural home, Rwandans engaging in voluntary service ½ day each month.

I don’t know what I expected but it was definitely not this. I knew that the country had been destroyed after the genocide, just seventeen years ago. That may be a long time for a human life but insignificant in the life of a nation.

Most Rwandans ascribe this remarkable metamorphosis to the very strong rule of the current President Paul Kagame (who was the vice-President in the new government that took over after the genocide).  The man is brilliant and has a clear vision of where he wants Rwanda to head to. At the same time, make no mistakes – he is very authoritarian. This has been amply demonstrated a number of times in the last seventeen years (where he has been at the near top or top of government) whether it was

  • Forced closing down the internally displaced people camps on the grounds that they were fomenting trouble.
  • Doing away with thatched roofs and making tin roofs compulsory, often at huge costs to the poor.
  • Levying punitive fines for littering or drunken driving.
  • Enforcing ‘voluntary’ work (umuganda) through an elaborate system of fines for those who don’t participate.

Then there have been excesses, like the massacre  in the Kibeho camp, that have blotted the copybook. Nevertheless, these cannot take too much away from the brilliant nation building that has been accomplished.

Would a democratic, participatory system of government have been able to do this in such a short time?

Let’s look at the situation seventeen years ago when the government took over. The country was in ruins. There had been four years of civil war preceding the genocide. Almost the entire population had been displaced. 20% of the population had been killed in less than 100 days.  There were no resources, industry, agriculture ongoing. Infrastructure had collapsed. There was no national pride left and there were even doubts on whether the nation would continue to exist given the mistrust and enmity that had come to fore amongst the people.

Somehow I think democracy would not have done as well. It needed decisive, bold and uncompromising leadership and that is what Rwanda, luckily, got.

However, can this continue? Should it continue? I think not. In the long run, as Amartya Sen and others have argued, democracy is the best system to foster growth and alleviate poverty.

In governance, as in life, timing is everything. There is a time and place for a particular strategy to be implemented and a time and place for it to die out. For instance, I think it was right for Nehru to adopt the commanding heights model of development in independent India. That ensured attention to infrastructure development and safety nets for the poor. Sadly, the Indian government did not have an exit strategy. The eventual move to a more liberal model had to be forced on the country when it could have been phased out 10-15 years after independence. Indians are still bearing the brunt of socialist days.

I feel that Rwanda and President Kagame have reached a critical point. A base has been created from which Rwanda can take off and claim a place in the developed league of nations. No doubt that problems of poverty and income inequity still remain to be addressed. However, the need for a totalitarian state seems to have abated. History, and more recently the Arab Spring, has shown that authoritarian regimes have a limited shelf-life.

It is time for President Kagame to show foresight and wisdom and voluntarily relinquish some of the power his government has. Open out the space for dissent. Promote a genuine multi-party democracy. Reap the benefits of a democratic state. Live with the disadvantages.

It takes enormous strength for anyone anywhere to voluntarily relinquish power. We have had very few examples of this in the recent past. Nelson Mandela did it and by that act elevated his stature immensely.

Will President Kagame be able to do it?