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Rwanda not yet a success story nor a normal country

By Frederick Golooba-Mutebi

Since he wrote his ‘Is Rwanda an African Success Story’ (The Independent, July 09-15), Timothy Kalyegira, easily the most committed of media skeptics about Rwanda and its President, Paul Kagame, has been the subject of much-animated discussion in Kigali. On a recent visit there, almost everyone I know and bumped into, said something about him and his ‘hatred of Rwanda’. Responses to the article by Rwandans leave nothing to the imagination regarding what they think of him. In his ‘Rwanda is not coming down; she’s on the up, up!’ (The New Times, July 16,), Pan Butamire credits Kalyegira with ‘a cynical streak’ that makes him ‘sound ludicrous’.

And in ‘Is there no reconciliation in Rwanda?’ (The Independent, July 16-22, 2010), Pascal Gahamanyi accuses Kalyegira of relying ‘entirely on ignorance and prejudice’ and ‘ignoring basic information’ even as he claims ‘to do research before he writes’. Although milder than some of the things I have heard people say about him in Kigali, these are serious accusations. The livid reactions should not surprise. It is not the first time Kalyegira has had a go at Rwanda or its leadership. Those who know him well are aware of how tenaciously he holds on to his views, valid or not. He and I have sparred several times over the years about Rwanda, a country he loves to dismiss as ordinary, and whose admirers he sees as hopelessly nave and impressionable. Remarkably, his first and last visit to Rwanda ‘” he stopped in Kigali ‘” was more than four years ago, a very long time for a country undergoing rapid change as Rwanda is.

Be that as it may, there are issues he raises that merit careful consideration. For example, he argues that comparison of countries such as Uganda and Rwanda amount to comparing ‘the normal with the dysfunctional’. While there are several angles from which one could justifiably rate Uganda as dysfunctional, given its recent history, Rwanda should not be characterised as a normal country. And in its abnormality lie the reasons why it should not be assessed on the basis of conventional criteria. At the time it seized power, the Rwanda Patriotic Front inherited a country in ruins, without money, and with no functioning state institutions. It had no civil service, no police, no health service and, perhaps more daunting, no source of income. For years, donors, believing that the new government would not last, withheld assistance. Whatever little they were willing to give, they channeled to NGOs and wasteful UN agencies, many of which used it to feed the very people who had executed the genocide. As it became clear they had lost the war, they ran away with the country’™s entire treasury.

Meanwhile some powerful countries were busy bad-mouthing the new government in an effort to ensure it received no assistance from sources over which they exercised influence. It wasn’™t until the late 1990s, after it became clear the new government was there to stay, that donors started to put real resources into the country, with substantial amounts going into state coffers. Until then, the RPF had managed to run the country through sheer ingenuity and learnt lessons of which the most important seems to have been that the primary responsibility for taking their country forward lay squarely in the hands of Rwandans themselves. While the country has made tremendous progress on many fronts, the baggage imposed on it by years of systematic orchestration of ethnic conflict and the aftermath of the mass slaughters of 1959, 1962, 1973 and finally the genocide, still weighs heavy. A small and poor country grappling with problems of the magnitude Rwanda has faced in recent years and still faces today cannot be a normal, to be measured against countries that have never known instability on grand scale such as Morocco, Seychelles, Mauritius, Madagascar, Namibia and others Kalyegira cites.

It is true that people who visit Rwanda marvel at how clean and orderly Kigali is compared to cities elsewhere in the region and beyond. Remembering his childhood in clean and orderly Entebbe, Kalyegira arguably has grounds for asserting that there is nothing impressive about the state Kigali is in. Nonetheless, that Kigali is the only Rwandan town talked about in these terms merely reflects the fact that many visitors do not venture beyond it. It is not the only clean and orderly town in the country.Over the last decade I have traversed Rwanda, sometimes as a visitor, other times as a researcher investigating this or that phenomenon. From time to time I have hitched rides with officials going about their duties. Consequently, I have ended up in places, some very remote, which I could not have reached on my own. My adventures have allowed me to observe different aspects of life in Rwanda at close range.

A perceptive visitor to any place in Rwanda cannot fail to notice evidence of the high quality of public administration and service delivery in the country. The regular cleaning and garbage collection seen in Kigali is, for example, evident in towns, big and small, across the country: Musanze, Rubavu, Rwamagana, Kirehe, Nyanza, Nyamata, Nyamagabe, Nyagatare, Kamonyi, Ngoma, Muhanga, Huye, Ruhango, Byumba, Kibuye, Bugesera, Kayonza. In neither of these towns does one find unruly boda-boda riders disregarding traffic rules, or commuter-taxi drivers turning pedestrian pavements into parking lots. The reason why all this is impressive is not because it happens only in Rwanda, or that it has never happened anywhere else. Rather, it is because it happens in a country which only 16 years ago was expected to dig itself deeper into chaos and mayhem and add a new statistic to Africa’™s many failed and failing states. In 1994 no one in their right mind, save, perhaps, for RPF cadres and RPA soldiers who against all odds had organised a war and defeated a better-equipped and resourced army, would have expected to see not only a functioning state, but an effective one in less than a generation.

Evidence of the effectiveness of the Rwandan state is visible beyond clean streets. Health facilities, even in the remotest of regions, are well-stocked with essential medicines and basic equipment. Medicines are not stolen by health workers operating illegal, unlicensed clinics. Nor is absenteeism an issue; health workers turn up on time and stay at work until official closing times. The vast majority of rural folk possess medical insurance which entitles them to services of a quality their counterparts in neighbouring countries, particularly Uganda which I know better than any other, could not possibly expect. In health as in other spheres, Rwandans do not expect to offer bribes to public servants employed to deliver services to which they are entitled. Given the country’™s demographics, most of the beneficiaries of these advances are members of the majority Hutu population who, thanks to propaganda by past regimes, would never have expected to be treated with fairness under the post-1994 dispensation. The impact of all this on inter-group relations and prospects for national reconciliation should not be under-estimated.

Commentators of a particular bent may sneer at the Rwanda government’™s democratic credentials. However, unlike its neighbours where political campaigns and elections are occasions for bribery of voters, spreading terror by state agents and for faking results by partisan electoral bodies, Rwanda’™s political campaigns are free of violence, elections are orderly and efficiently conducted, and its electoral commission generally held in high esteem and trusted by participants in all past elections. Moreover in Rwanda police and army officers do not make political statements praising the RPF or criticising its opponents. Both institutions and others making up the country’™s security architecture are required by law to keep out of partisan politics. They do, and no claims to special status are made by officers purporting to be above the law because they are ‘presidential advisors’. Hutu and Tutsi who qualify under the law are free to participate, without restriction or special privileges linked to ethnicity, as candidates or supporters of any of the country’™s 9 legally-registered political parties. Moreover, access to state media by all legal political parties, as stipulated by the country’™s laws, is guaranteed. Journalists working for state media are not fired for hosting leaders of parties other than the RPF. And no owner of a private radio station is harassed or threatened with the possibility of closure for doing the same thing. Under the supremacist Habyarimana and Kayibanda regimes this kind of ‘˜freedom for all’™ was unthinkable. The effect of this on inter-group relations could not possibly be neutral.

Another sphere in which the robustness of the Rwanda state can be discerned is law enforcement. In all countries there are laws regulating many different aspects of people’™s lives. In some, including several of Rwanda’™s neighbours, having laws on the statute books is one thing, enforcement is another. In Rwanda the state’™s willingness and capacity for law enforcement explains why the impunity which some of us have come to accept as a fact of life in our countries is virtually unknown. You break the law, you suffer the consequences, regardless of your status or station in life. There are no untouchables, which explains why, regardless of what they may think of President Kagame as individuals, and there are those who think he could be less strict and more compromising, Rwandans generally agree that they are equal before the law. For example, there are no publicly known cases of some individuals stealing public funds with impunity while others guilty of the same offence go to jail. Nor are there cases of the high and mighty erecting buildings in total disregard of planning regulations and suffering no consequences while others have theirs demolished. There are no traffic policemen and women harassing ordinary motorists while ministers, army officers, and (even) judges, drive or are driven on the wrong side of the road as is the case in Uganda. Important personalities and ordinary folk, Hutu and Tutsi, soldier and civilian, all live in equal fear of, and respect for, the law.

Still on law enforcement, Kalyegira is, of course, right to argue that ‘a state is not just about buildings, street lights or a functional civil service’. However, whether building regulations are enforced or not, whether there is sufficient capacity to ensure that street lights are on when and where they are required to be, and whether state employees are at work when they are supposed to be, rendering the services they are supposed to render, and being at work when required to be, are all indicative of a strong, organised, and functioning state. These things do not happen in weak, dysfunctional and collapsed states. It is too early to call Rwanda an African success story, as it is inappropriate to call it a normal country. All things being equal, however, it is hardly beyond imagination that it could become both in the not-so-distant future.


Golooba is Senior Research Fellow, Makerere Institute of Social Research, Makerere University

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