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A return to Rwanda Part 3

Why the way Rwandans tend to public spaces with dedication and care shows they see their country as something precious and reflective of their identity

THE LAST WORD | ANDREW M. MWENDA | When you visit Rwanda, the very first impression you get (as you drive from the airport to Kigali city) is the way the government maintains public spaces: paved and cleaned streets, neatly mowed lawns, properly built pedestrian sidewalks on every road or street, beautifully pruned flower gardens, street and traffic lights that work, and well dressed and focused traffic police officers attentive to their duties. This is different from the experience of other countries at the same level of income as Rwanda, or even much richer ones in terms of GDP and per capita spending. Why?

It becomes obvious that the country has very good leadership; at the level of its head of state, the ruling party, in the central bureaucracy, at the lower levels of local government, etc. I also think this leadership is also a product of a particular society and mindset.

Whenever I would visit government (and even private) offices in Rwanda, I would ask those I met why they work so hard and with dedication. Almost without exception, they would tell me: “we are rebuilding our country.”

In other countries of Africa, that sense of mission, of vision and of purpose is lacking. I will return to the implications of this in my concluding remarks.

As I wrote last week, the dominant influence in shaping the character of the government of post genocide Rwanda is the Tutsi diaspora who formed the core of the RPF. Unlike so many other people elsewhere, these Tutsi were born in exile as refugees in camps. The international community was indifferent to their plight. When they sought to fight to win their citizenship no one, except President Yoweri Museveni’s Uganda, came to their aid; the international community became even hostile to their cause. In the concluding months of their struggle, when they confronted the specter of genocide, the international community left them to be slaughtered.

The vast majority of us are born in our countries and this makes us take our citizenship for granted. For many Tutsi-Banyarwanda, they had to fight and face genocide to win it. Citizenship, the idea of belonging to a country, to these Rwandans is something precious – something they had to fight and die for.

Rwandans generally are obedient to authority – just like the Chinese or Japanese or Koreans. This could be a product of the long history of a strong paternalistic state. Indeed, I suspect this is the reason it was so easy for the genocidal state to organise for mass slaughter – it had a captive society ready to do its bidding. It also partly explains RPF’s success: it presides over a people who are willing to follow its vision.

A society that values conformity and loyalty (like Rwanda) over self-expression (like Nigeria) would have much more moral capital. This is because the former society would better be able to suppress or regulate selfishness and would therefore be more likely to succeed in enforcing rules. Moral communities are very fragile things; they are hard to build and easy to destroy. As the moral psychologist, Jonathan Haidt, has argued in his book, The Righteous Mind, for large entities like nations, the risk of moral atrophy is always high. If you don’t value moral capital, then you won’t foster values, norms, ethics, practices and institutions that increase it.

Most individual behavior is largely a result of socialisation rather than conscious agency. People act as they do, naturally without question, mostly out of habit. They are products of their social environment and unaware that they might have behaved differently. As George Akerlof has argued in his book, Identity Economics, coauthored with Rachel Kranton, although people have individualistic tastes within their utility functions, norms are part of the mix. These norms may be internalised through mechanisms of community approval or disapproval. Things like gossip, stories and private and public censor are common ways of communicating and reinforcing norms.

In Rwanda, the sense of community and identity – ndi’munyarwanda (I am a Munyarwanda), even within RPF is very high. If someone in an office does not contribute to the country or party, they are shunned by friends and community. Akerlof won a Nobel prize in economist by underlining the value of identity. He asks: what makes a good plumber? It is not incentive pay. It is also not professional competence. It is a leap in identity. Once someone makes that leap and sees themselves as a great plumber, journalist, lawyer, etc., then they want to see themselves in the product of their work – great plumbing, great journalism, great legal work etc.

Successful countries forge similar identities – I am a Munyarwanda and I want dignity. If Rwandans tend to public spaces with dedication and care, it is because they are socialised to see their country in a particular way; they feel it is something precious they must tend to because its cleanness and neatness reflects their identity as Banyarwanda and their desire for respect and dignity.

Finally, rebel movements face adverse selection problems. If there is a rich mineral from which to raise funds or a superpower bank-rolling the struggle, opportunists seeking a quick payoff flood the movement and crowd out politically committed members. Because the RPF fought in a resource scarce environment and had no superpower bankrolling it, it tended to attract individuals committed to the political objectives of the struggle. It also led the party to self-reliance. Success depended on good management of scarce resources – hence hostility to misuse of collective resources.

Yet I want to emphasise that the existence of appropriate structural conditions does not automatically produce good leadership – whether in the form of an individual leader or an effective organisation. In the case of the RPF, Kagame’s role was vital. Without him, it is hard to see how these material advantages would have been exploited to produce the success we see. Many RPF leaders tried to pursue their individual interests often to the detriment of collective national and party goals. But they encountered Kagame’s stubborn resolution; a willingness to confront such elites with dogged tenacity in defense of the collective interests of the organisation.

The RPF that emerged successful in the armed struggle was a well-knit organisation capable to transforming into an effective government. Yet this was not automatic. At every twist and turn, some elites tried to serve themselves. It required extraordinary leadership ability to hold the party and then later government; to draw a line in the sand and tenaciously defend it. RPF’s desire to serve the country has been a continuous and relentless struggle – indicating that leadership is vital to sustain progressive change.


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