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The challenge Africa’s reformers face

By Andrew M. Mwenda

An African leader who fights corruption will face resistance from powerful vested interests using democracy to subvert his reforms

Next month, Rwanda commemorates 17 years since the genocide. Most of its citizens look back at what they have achieved with both pride and humility. The society that had been torn asunder by genocide has been reconstituted, the state that had disintegrated has been reconfigured and the economy that had collapsed has been reconstructed.

The RPF was born of three critical grievances which were all official policies of the government: keeping a section of the population as perpetual refugees, denying them equal treatment before the law and denying them equal access to available opportunities. The aim of the RPF was to create a nation where all its citizens would have a right to live inside Rwanda with equal rights before the law and with equal access to opportunities.

Today, all these objectives have been achieved. There is not one single Rwandan living abroad because government policy refuses them the right to return home “because the country is full.” I admit there are many Rwandans in exile afraid to return home for one reason or another – some criminal, others political. But they are the exception, not the rule. Second, in almost all spheres of life, all Rwandans have equal access to available opportunities in education, healthcare, agricultural extension services, civil service, the army, politics etc.  Third, today all Rwandans are equal before the law.

I admit that post genocide Rwanda is not a paradise; it has one million and one iniquities. But no society can be perfect, not even Norway and Finland. The rich and powerful in Rwanda may evade justice, get unfair advantage over others or go unpunished for transgressions. However, even accounting for these divergences, post genocide Rwanda has by and large constructed the most fair and equitable society in post colonial Africa.

For example, it is most likely in Rwanda, more than any other country in Africa or even the world that the poorest and least educated citizen in the remotest village can have almost the same opportunity as a cabinet minister to be evacuated for medical treatment abroad if his/her condition so demanded. It is also most likely in Rwanda, more than any other country in Africa or the world that a child born in an extremely poor family with no political connections whatsoever can on its merit get a government scholarship to Harvard. No wonder Rwanda has just been rated the fourth best country in the entire British Commonwealth for a girl child to be born.

While in all Africa a malnourished child is a statistic in government records, it is only in Rwanda in the whole of Africa that every malnourished child has a name, a home and gets milk and cereal at the local government clinic daily. It is only in Rwanda of the 27 African countries I have visited that I have seen government build a hospital equipped with most sophisticated equipment and medical staff in the remotest village to serve ordinary people. And all this in a country with a very low income per capita, a poorly developed human resource base and a country without strong institutional traditions.

The experience I have witnessed in Rwanda over the last seven years has both inspired and humbled me. I had spent most of my career berating governments in Africa for their disinterest in the needs of ordinary people, thinking that this was because of lack of democracy as we conventionally understand it. Over the years, Africa has “democratised” – elections are regular, political parties vibrant, media are loud. But this has not translated into governments that serve the ordinary citizen. Instead, crooks have taken over. In Rwanda I have seen the evolution of a government committed to serving ordinary people.

Yet international human rights groups, sections of the international and regional press and a significant section of Africa’s intellectual class have been relentless and ferocious in their attacks on the Rwanda government generally and President Paul Kagame personally, accusing him of running a Stalinist government. They have forced some enlightened but insecure people in the West to rethink their support for Kagame.

Critics have ignored or failed to see the democratic nature of many of Rwanda’s reforms. For example, Kagame has expanded political participation to ordinary Rwandans, integrated ordinary people in the politics as rights-bearing citizens and not as clients of powerful individuals as is the case in most of Africa. He has also empowered ordinary Rwandans to manage their own affairs through their local councils. This has not been achieved by guesswork but has been a key tenet of his strategy of political consolidation.

This reordering of power has attracted a lot of resistance from vested elite interests who were benefiting from the corruption and patronage. Trying to give ordinary people a voice in politics and make them beneficiaries of government policy and action demands the destabilisation of the status quo. You cannot transform a country’s politics without changing the power structure. And you cannot change the power structure without generating resistance from vested interests. And you cannot defeat that resistance without attacking the instruments vested interests use to dominate the political process.

For example, to deliver services to ordinary people demands that one has to fight corruption and personalised patronage. Yet the corrupt are always the most educated, rich, articulate and influential sections of the society. They speak to BBC and CNN, they have access to human rights groups, they write in local newspapers and they form political parties. They will deploy all these instruments in their struggle to retain their privileges.

Thus, when a reformer seeks to fight corruption and patronage, he is actually taking away the source of power, wealth and status from powerful elites. For we must remember that for every pothole in a road in Africa, someone has built a mansion; for every ghost school, someone has sent their child to Harvard; for every ghost hospital, someone has evacuated their child to Germany for treatment; and for almost every indignity suffered by the ordinary people, someone powerful has made money reaping off the state.

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