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Why Rwanda succeeds where others have failed

By Independent Team

A few days ago someone asked me why has Rwanda been so successful and what has made it so. He was partly reacting to an article I wrote elsewhere, outlining the reasons to which I attribute the strong emotions debates about Rwanda tend to provoke. A few weeks ago I wrote another article in which I argued that Rwanda was not yet a success story. My friend’s question therefore left me in something of a bind. Nonetheless, I concluded that well as Rwanda cannot be a success story in the same way as its role models, the Asian Tigers, have been, there are numerous developments since 1994 that one can point to as examples of success.

Commentators on Rwanda who seek to deviate from the chorus of criticism and condemnation coming from Rwandan exiles, human and media rights activists, international journalists, foreign academics, and western governments, tend to focus on the cleanliness and orderliness of Kigali, service delivery and the government’s tough anti-corruption measures to highlight its success. On-going research in rural Rwanda has shown me that the service delivery story is not told in sufficient detail, for it is here that the Rwandan state’s organisational, managerial, and coordination capacities can be seen in sharp relief. It is not for nothing that the recent UN Summit on the Millennium Development Goals recognised the country for reducing under-five child mortality by two thirds and improving maternal health, in pursuit of MDGs 4 and 5. There are other public goods provision successes in the areas of education, agriculture, water, sanitation and security that one could cite to demonstrate the tremendous transformation the East African Community’s second-poorest country has undergone in less than two decades.

In this article, however, I would like to focus on the success the government has achieved by way of laying the foundation on which all this is built. It is important to note that, contrary to popular opinion, Rwanda is not ruled solely by the Rwanda Patriotic Front, the political grouping that fought and wrested power from the late Juvenal Habyarimana and his mainly northern-Hutu entourage. It is equally important to emphasise that prior to 1994 politico-social divisions in Rwanda did not follow the simple Tutsi-Hutu divide most people who talk about Rwanda imagine. Under Gregoire Kayibanda, a southerner, those who suffered exclusion included Tutsi and northern Hutu, while under northern-born Habyarimana, it was the turn of southern Hutu, alongside perennially marginalised Tutsi. In a total departure from past practice, since 1994 Rwanda has been ruled by the RPF in collaboration with other parties some of which opposed Habyarimana’s rule from inside the country long before 1994, and many of whose members and supporters, Tutsi and Hutu alike, were killed during the genocide.

The decision by all contenders for power to end the adversarial politics of the pre-genocide period and opt for a system built on the basis of consensus, in which they would all play a part following mutually-agreed formulae set out in the Arusha Accords, was critically important. It constituted the crucial political settlement which provided the stable environment in which the ‘ruling coalition’ of elites went on to define a collective vision of the Rwanda they wanted to build, from which no Rwandan would be excluded. Part of the process leading to the definition of this vision consisted of consultations presided over by former President, Pasteur Bizimungu. They brought together ex-Diaspora elites and their counterparts who had lived through the several episodes of upheaval Rwanda had experienced. A key point of agreement was that ‘never again’ should Rwanda and Rwandans re-live the shameful aspects of their history involving mass murder, systematic social and political exclusion, and self-enrichment by a few amidst mass impoverishment of the rest. A very important aspect of this consensus, one that is little known by critics of the post-genocide government, was that it left no room for defectors.

It also meant that those who would defect by engaging in activities identified as harmful to national interest or vision would find themselves isolated. Given the consensus against discrimination, it is not feasible that those accused of wrong-doing could attribute their troubles to persecution on claims of ethnicity or even religion. If you have ever wondered why there are no untouchables in Rwanda and why those accused of wrong-doing are jailed or prosecutes in court or even flee the country, here is the reason why.

A common joke I have heard in Kigali is that it helps for all those seeking public office to prepare their pink suits in advance. In Rwanda prisoners wear pink suits. Of course it is not true that all those seeking public office or even a large number of them, end up in jail. It is true, however, that accusations of wrong-doing almost invariably land the accused into trouble which may include a stint in jail. Also important, Rwandans generally agree, is the exemplary integrity of President Kagame which has given him large amounts of moral authority.

A senior Rwandan official told me recently that President Kagame has made it clear to whoever he works with that there is no room for failure in his own mind. He therefore expects everybody to succeed in whatever responsibility they are assigned, for that is the only way they will help him succeed as president. People who fail, especially because they are not pulling their weight or even worse, those who engage in impropriety, are seen as seeking to fail him. In Rwanda the price one pays for failure is high. It is in knowing that there is no escape from punishment for sloppiness or incompetence that people entrusted with responsibility take the trust vested in them extremely seriously. It may explain why it is not uncommon for public servants to resign their posts to spend more time with their families or to try their talents elsewhere. Local government, the arena in which most activities intended to improve the lives of ordinary Rwandans take place, has, arguably the highest turn-over of elected and appointed officials in Africa.

The writer is a political scientist and a senior research fellow at Makerere Institute of Social Research.

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