In the run-up to the presidential election on Aug. 9 in the tiny East African nation of Rwanda, the government of Paul Kagame has arrested several opposition members, expelled a representative of Human Rights Watch (HRW), shut two newspapers and suspended the BBC's Rwandan service. On May 28, police detained Peter Erlinder, 62, an attorney from Minnesota representing an opposition leader, and held him for more than two weeks. Other regime challengers have been less fortunate. A former army officer living in exile in Johannesburg was shot and wounded on June 19; in Rwanda, a journalist was shot dead on June 24, and an opposition leader was beheaded on July 14. Taken together, these events might suggest that Rwanda is run by a type of government all too familiar in Africa and many of Kagame's critics have made the inevitable comparison of him to the continent's notorious Big Men. "We have no problems acknowledging [Kagame] has done positive things," says Kenneth Roth, head of HRW. "But we question whether the world should be closing its eyes to dictatorship."
But Rwanda, where the ethnic-Hutu majority macheted 800,000 members of the Tutsi minority and their Hutu "collaborators" over 100 days in 1994, is not an easy place to explain. Kagame's record on human rights is more nuanced than critics admit. He has abolished the death penalty, released thousands of so-called génocidaires from jail to participate in a reconciliation process, decentralized government, given the opposition seats in his Cabinet and taken a stand against African homophobia hardly the actions of a tyrant.
Kagame's accomplishments don't end there. Since his rebel forces ended the genocide, Kagame has presided over Rwanda's stunning rebirth. Its economy has grown an average of 6.4% since 2001; last year the World Bank named Rwanda its most improved country; roads, schools, running water and phones are widespread; disease is down; literacy and life expectancy are up; even the mountain gorillas are thriving. That record makes Kagame, 52, the star of a new Africa recast as a place of growth and opportunity, a status U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon cemented on June 24 when he named Kagame co-chair of a new panel on ending world poverty.
How to reconcile that impressive record with the unsavory events ahead of the vote? Kagame denies any involvement in the attacks and attributes HRW's expulsion to a visa violation. To understand the closure of newspapers and arrests of critics, you have to remember that memories of the genocide will never fade and neither will fears of a relapse. The arrests and closures, Kagame says, were meant to stop the stoking of more Hutu-Tutsi violence. The President is a Tutsi. There's no denying that many opposition figures representing Hutus have contact with the militias responsible for the 1994 atrocities and sometimes make inflammatory statements. Erlinder's client, Victoire Ingabire, told TIME recently that if the Hutus win power again in Rwanda, "I am sure they will revenge themselves against the Tutsis." One of the closed newspapers, Umuseso, also predicted blood. Quoting John F. Kennedy, it wrote, "Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable." In most places, the quotation would be unexceptionable; in Rwanda, it can be read as an exhortation to bring out the machetes again.
As Kagame sees it, his government's seemingly draconian measures are designed to save Rwanda from its worst demons. And if that means some Western critics question his human-rights record, so be it. There's no bigger rights violation than genocide, after all, and the results his administration has delivered give him the authority to challenge Western notions of how his country and Africa should be governed. "If I am solving my people's problems," Kagame tells TIME, "it doesn't matter how much you abuse me." His people, for the most part, aren't complaining: Kagame is expected to easily win the election, adding seven years to the 16 he's been in charge.
Kagame was born in Ruhango village in central Rwanda in 1957 but was raised in a refugee camp in southern Uganda after his family fled an outbreak of Hutu-on-Tutsi violence in 1959. He grew up serious and refugee-skinny, a physique that to this day gives him an air of austerity. By 21, he was a rebel. He helped Yoweri Museveni seize power in Uganda in 1986. Then he co-founded the Rwandan Patriotic Front, which invaded Rwanda in 1990. On April 6, 1994, unknown attackers shot down a plane carrying the Presidents of Rwanda and Burundi, both Hutus, over Kigali, the Rwandan capital, triggering the genocide. Kagame's forces pushed south and by July held most of the country. What he saw in those 100 days, says Kagame, still defies description. "Fathers were killing their own children because [they] resembled their wife, who was a Tutsi. How do you explain that?"
A better future, Kagame decided, meant a clean break from the past. For Rwanda to have peace, the colonial divide-and-rule legacy that pitted Tutsi against Hutu had to go and there could be no tolerance for the breed of politician or journalist who fanned ethnic animosities to orchestrate the genocide. "This is not about criticism or debate or opposition," says Kagame. "It is a line drawn on the basis of what is right and wrong for us."
To prosper, Rwanda would have to confront other dubious Western ideas. The rich world, says Kagame, still looks at Africa with "absolute contempt" for being poor. Aid and human rights are just Western arrogance in a white SUV, a fresh manifestation of the old belief that Africans cannot take care of themselves. Fix the poverty via business, which has rocketed not aid, which Kagame insists is temporary and you remove the reason for prejudice. "The rich world says Rwanda is a small country, an African country, a poor country," he says. "I reject that."
Kagame's not the first African leader to question Western notions of governance. Many of Africa's Big Men like Zimbabwean leader Robert Mugabe, Muammar Gaddafi of Libya and Liberia's Charles Taylor have railed against former colonial powers, all the while making the case for intervention with their misrule. Kagame, on the other hand, can point to a record of success to underline his claim that he knows better than the West what's best for his country.
As for human rights, he says, it's not that he sacrifices them in the name of results; it's that results are the best kind of rights. Rights groups say such arguments are just finely articulated excuses for tyranny. But many outsiders are willing to give Kagame the benefit of the doubt. Says a Western diplomat in Kigali: "We are here for development, and Rwanda is very good at it, so there is a tendency to cut them some slack."