Can Rwanda become a high-tech hub with an authoritarian leader?

Rwanda under President Paul Kagame has invested in infrastructure, drawing start-ups and outside investments. But will a referendum to extend his power squelch the potential for further progress?

Rwanda President Paul Kagame posts his ballot, in Kigali, Friday, Dec. 18, 2015. Rwandans are voting in a referendum to decide if President Kagame should be allowed to extend his time in power. Kagame is ineligible to run in 2017 because the Rwandan constitution limits a president to two terms. But if Rwandans vote to change the term restriction, Kagame would be able to run for an additional seven-year term and then two-five terms. He could possibly stay in power until 2034.

Rwandans headed to the polls on Friday to vote on a referendum that would change the country’s new constitution, allowing its current president to stay in office for nearly 20 more years. 

President Paul Kagame, who some credit with ending the country’s civil war, is facing the end of his second term in 2017, though the vote could potentially allow him to remain in power until 2034.

“I did not apply for this. You go and ask Rwandans why they want me," said Mr. Kagame, who has run the country since 2000, to Agence France-Presse.

The measure has been criticized as undemocratic by the United States and Europe. Some have condemned the referendum as a foregone conclusion, in a country known for government intimidation.

The referendum was hastily announced just last week, and the country’s Green Party says it did not have time to organize a counter campaign, AFP reported.

In the spring of 1994, an estimated 500,000 to 1,000,000 Rwandans, mostly ethnic Tutsis, were killed over a 100-day period by members of the Hutu majority. Kagame’s rebel Tutsi group, the Rwanda Patriotic Front, ended the genocide with a military victory over government forces.

By 2000, Kagame was elected president, unleashing a plan to pour money into infrastructure and create a self-sustaining economic model for its citizens.

Billions flowed into the country from Western nations and the number of people living below the poverty line fell. Education and healthcare improved, and by 2014 new construction and signs of economic prosperity could be seen on the streets of Kigali, the country's capital.

In recent years, Rwanda has installed thousands of miles of fiber optic cables and improved its cell-phone network and now has one of the faster Internet connections in the region, according to The Washington Post, with a plan to provide high-speed Internet access to nearly all of the country by 2017.

The goal is to bring investors and entrepreneurs from the tech industry to the country, a way to combat poverty and rebuild the area still recovering from the war, government officials said.

But as Kagame has drawn fire for targeting political opponents, squelching press freedoms, and edging Rwanda closer to authoritarian rule, donors have pulled back aid, the Post said.

But while outside funding continued to represent half of Rwanda’s budget in 2014, new urgency has been given to the high-tech plan.

The government and private investors last year began a $100 million venture fund to produce 100 indigenous, high-tech companies worth $50 million.

“It reinforces our desire to one day not be able to depend on aid,” Clare Akamanzi, chief operating officer for the Rwanda Development Board, told the Post. “Technology is a key. We call it the driver for other economic activity.”

Over 90 percent of Rwanda’s workforce is tied to subsistence farming, according to the World Bank, even as the country has sustained 7 percent growth.

Kagame’s move to change the constitution to potentially retain power is just the latest of similar gambits across the African continent in countries like Congo and Burundi.

The referendum proposes keeping a two-term limit and reducing presidential terms from seven to five years, but makes an exception for Kagame, allowing him to stay in office through 2034, The Wall Street Journal reported.

“Very few Rwandans are willing or able to challenge President Kagame or the ruling party,” Carina Tertsakian, a researcher for Rwanda and Burundi at Human Rights Watch, told the Journal.

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