Rwanda the Real Wakanda?

Last year, the film Black Panther broke box office records and challenged the Hollywood consensus. For the first time ever, an ‘all black’ cast had headlined a major motion picture. One which made over a billion dollars worldwide and more in the United States than Avengers Infinity War. The film imagined a world, home to the advanced African nation of Wakanda, which thanks to its monopoly over the unique resource of Vibranium, had managed to avoid the horrors of colonialism and become a prosperous, independent African nation. As an economics student, I believe that this premise seems to be painfully false. There is an African nation blessed with unique natural resources, so important that every person reading this article will have it in their pocket. It’s the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which is home to more than half of the world’s supply of cobalt. A mineral used to create smartphones’ rechargeable batteries. But the Democratic Republic of the Congo remains one of the world’s poorest nations, despite having rich resources of cobalt as well as copper, diamonds, tantalum, and tin. In reality Wakanda, just like the DRC, would suffer from a nasty case of “Dutch disease”, inhibiting industrialisation and a diversified economy. The real vibranium, as economists will tell you, is the “World Bank’s’ Ease of Doing Business Index”. Score higher than your neighbours in this, and your economy will soar through an influx in that magical blessing of foreign direct investment (FDI).

So what makes Rwanda the real Wakanda? For starters, Rwanda is a small landlocked nation within the African interior with far higher living standards than all of its neighbours. Also, just like the fictional Wakanda, it owes its wealth to a warrior king. While Rwanda’s president Paul Kagame isn’t a superhero, he is quite possibly the world’s greatest living general. At the age of twenty-eight, he helped overthrow the Ugandan regime, and at thirty-six, he toppled the Rwandan regime and ended the genocide. But his journey of martial brilliance didn’t stop here. He further went on to oust the government of the DRC, at the age of thirty-nine. Since 2000 he has ruled Rwanda as a warrior king, the rare autocrat who proved his martial credentials in a total war. After eighteen years of leading his nation, he has dramatically increased its GDP per capita from $200 to over $750. In 2000, the foreign direct investment into Rwanda was less than US$20 million. However, today it averages $232 million a year. The Kagame regime is a peaceful one with only 2.5 murders per thousand residents per year, much less than the United States, and far lower than its neighbour, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, with 13.5 murders per thousand people a year.

So, the mandatory question is how has Rwanda’s despot achieved so much. It is not through democracy or liberalism. Rwanda has severe limitations on freedom of speech and assembly. It’s a police state, with opposition leaders frequently being harassed and jailed. Former intelligence leaders have been mysteriously strangled to death in a South African hotel, and strangely, a former Interior Minister was shot dead in Kenya. In the most recent presidential election in 2017, Kagame won over 98% of the popular vote, a number even Stalin would blush at. It should be noted that the Rwandan population is over 85% Hutu, while Kagame hails from the market-dominant minority Tutsi ethnic group. It’s a little unlikely that a member of an unpopular minority could receive such overwhelming support in free elections. However, Kagame’s authoritarian tendencies are in keeping with the Black Panther comparison. Like King T’Challa from the film, Kagame gained his throne through martial prowess (while not in quite as grand a personal challenge as the film version). He also maintains his throne for the good of his people without actually asking for their input on his rule. The film is notable both for its stereotype breaking all-black cast and for its status as the rare Hollywood film which advocates for an absolute monarchical government instead of one based on the ideals of American liberty.

Upon his election, Kagame declared he would turn Rwanda into the “Singapore of Africa” and that the country would be the business and financial hub of the world’s developing continent. Just as Singapore had once gone from a small city on the edge of a Royal Navy base to the business hub of Asia in less than 50 years. Under Kagame, Rwanda has adopted English as its’ ‘lingua franca’ and become the second nation not associated with the British Empire to join the ‘Commonwealth of Nations’. Since 2000, Rwanda has liberalised its economy, cutting regulations and opening the markets to foreign businesses. The result of this is that now Rwanda ranks 29th in the ‘World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Index’, by far the highest in Africa and higher than nations such as the Netherlands, Japan, and Switzerland.

So is Rwanda the real-life Wakanda? If you accept that in the real world resource wealth almost never leads to sustained national wealth, and instead view vibranium as perhaps a metaphor for a liberal economic policy and uncorrupt courts and institutions, then Rwanda becomes the most obvious example of a real-world African nation which has achieved economic success, in spite of European colonialism in the past. Of course, through a policy of austere economic exceptionalism under the leadership of a great warrior monarch. However, while the fictional Wakanda was ruled by a benign dynasty, the very real Rwanda isn’t so lucky. In 2005, Kagame said that if by 2017 he hadn’t found a successor and made “a post me Rwanda possible”, then he would deem himself a failed leader. Contrary to that, in 2017, Kagame bullied the supreme court into allowing him to run for a third term. With the strict regulations and life-threatening challenges, to this day no possible successor has emerged. Today Rwanda sits at a crossroads. Its success has been remarkable, but if it can’t find a solution to the terrifying question of succession then its golden age might be a short-lived one.

Wakanda forever and we hope Rwanda too.

The Pangean does not condemn or condone any of the views of its contributors. It only gives them the space to think and write without hindrance.