Do African success narratives ignore authoritarian leaders like Kagame?

Cobus van Staden
By Cobus van Staden
Senior China-Africa researcher, South African Institute of International Affairs

Cobus is the head of research and analysis at the China Africa Project (

Posted on Friday, 1 October 2021 10:14, updated on Tuesday, 5 October 2021 05:08

Rwanda's President Paul Kagame and French President Emmanuel Macron give a press conference at the Presidential Palace in Kigali on May 27, 2021. Photo by Eliot Blondet

Changsha, China is emerging as a hub of Africa-China trade, and the China-Africa Economic and Trade Expo 2021 was held there, headline from the African side by Rwandan president Paul Kagame.

This week saw the second China-Africa Economic and Trade Expo, held in Changsha, the capital of China’s Hunan province. As we’ve covered over the last few years, the city is rapidly emerging as a hub of Africa-China trade. It houses a new cocoa trading facility and is a destination for other African agricultural commodities. As an estimated $16bn in deals were being signed, African commodities like pepper and butter sold out in minutes via live-streamed sales sessions, even as Chinese coffee chains are already planning to market African products to China’s growing coffee market.

The Expo is fascinating for many reasons, not least how it reveals the complex interaction between the Chinese central government and provincial governments in relation to Africa. The Expo was announced by President Xi Jinping at FOCAC in 2018 and was attended by Yang Jiechi, one of China’s most senior foreign policy officials. This approval at the highest level dovetails with provincial government plans to position Hunan not only as a centre for African trade but also as a BRI hub.

It also wasn’t surprising that the Expo was headlined from the African side by Rwandan president Paul Kagame, nor that Rwandan trade played an outsized role there. Rwanda is a leader in innovative agricultural trade with China. The live-streamed auctions of African commodities kicked off with Rwandan coffee a few years ago, and other African coffee producers have been chasing the Rwandan example since then. Another prominent recent deal to export chilis to Changsha was also Rwandan.

In our Covid-ravaged moment, it’s particularly satisfying to see all this trade. Those concerned with (‘tormented by’ might be more accurate) Africa’s stop-start obstacle course to development and fervently hoping for agriculture to replace mining and logging as the continent’s major trade flows can’t but get misty-eyed at all that Changsha represents. Which makes it maybe too easy to forget all the complexity that Rwanda represents…

Paul Kagame’s star turn at the Changsha Expo coincided with a new Economist story detailing his authoritarian rule at home. Under the headline: ‘How does Paul Kagame, Rwanda’s president, get away with it?’ it lists numerous serious allegations of opponents silenced at home and assassinated abroad.

It also points out that despite these well-documented allegations, Kagame has suffered very little blowback. This is not surprising on the ‘non-interfering Chinese side’, but it’s also true for his relations with Western governments.

The Economist quotes South Africa’s human rights icon Archbishop Desmond Tutu: “The whole world wanted to believe the miracle that was Rwanda […] To our shame, our need for Rwanda to succeed far exceeded our desire or ability to see at what cost success was bought.”

The international success of Rwanda’s development story points to a more complex issue: the fact that stories of African development are one of the few narratives that everyone on the different sides of the Africa-West-China triangle finds equally inspiring.

What underlies our collective need to be inspired by stories of African development, and which misdeeds are excused by that need? But even this question isn’t sufficient, because the Rwandan example should also force all of us to examine what we want to believe about development and its relationship with peace and human rights, no matter on which side we fall between Western ‘liberal’ and Chinese ‘developmental’ models of peace-building.

It’s one thing to spin fantasies of African development. Rwanda’s rise shows that actual African development might look quite a bit more complex, and to reduce China’s role in this rise to convenient stories about ‘exporting authoritarianism’ or ‘coddling dictators’ is a laughable oversimplification, considering how complicit we all are in complicated African success stories like Rwanda’s.

This article was first published in The China Africa Project. 

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