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Rwanda’s brand problem

By Andrew M. Mwenda

How human rights groups exploit Rwanda’s positive brand to build their own and what can be done about it

There has been an intense contest over “Brand Rwanda” in the international sphere. Many visitors to Rwanda are impressed by what they see. Physical observations – clean and well paved streets, manicured flowers, working street lights, mowed lawns, functional hospitals and schools and well-constructed pedestrian sidewalks strike a visitor’s eye. However, these visual observations tell of something profound about post genocide Rwanda – the construction of a functional state and one which has a strong commitment to serving the public good.


There is a second category of commentators on Rwanda made up of international human rights groups, journalist-defense associations (Reporters without Borders) and sections of the regional and international press. Many of these people have never visited Rwanda or have done so only occasionally. They argue passionately that Rwanda is a police state and its president, Paul Kagame, is the archetypal African despot. Their views are largely, if not entirely, informed by claims by anti regime activists.

The first group’s position is based on evidence – both visual and statistical – that are difficult to deny. So Rwanda critics have created a safe frontline on issues like human rights, freedom and democracy. It is a “safe frontline” because democracy and human rights are abstract issues where conjecture, prejudice and bias tend to work better. Thus, rumors, hearsay, idle gossip or out-of-context accusations can easily mislead an observer.

For example, the death of a journalist or an alleged threat to assassinate an opposition politician in exile immediately prompts human rights groups to take on the issue and even without a whit of evidence accuse the Rwanda government of being the perpetrator. The Rwanda government is good in many things. But it is shambolic in public relations. In almost all cases, human rights groups out-punch it, outmaneuver it and out-talk it leaving it bruised.

One can hate this group passionately but one also has to respect their ability to succeed – even to distort obvious facts and win such a large following in the international community. How did they achieve such a feat? One reason is their campaign feeds into deeply entrenched prejudices about governments in Africa and Africans generally. The other part is that the government of Rwanda – and contrary to popular opinion – does little or nothing to market its democracy credentials.

Nearly every support the Kagame administration has gained in the international system has been almost entirely predicated on its achievements on the ground. This is something that is deeply held in the RPF and its partners in government and epitomized in the beliefs of Kagame personally. He believes Rwanda should be judged by the fruits of their labors rather than the strength of its propaganda. Kagame in fact treats PR with contempt – as a way of lying to people.

Of course Kagame is partly right. Every product needs intrinsic value and quality to market it. If you successfully market a bad product, you will at a certain point hit a dead end when your customers realize that there is a mismatch between promises and quality. But Kagame is wrong to believe that a product, however good, can sell itself successfully in the market purely on its intrinsic merit without branding.

Rwanda/Kagame has been branded by its achievements as a successful case of post conflict reconstruction. The more the positive Rwanda brand has grown, the more it has attracted opportunistic groups that want to ride on it to enhance their own brand. By attacking an attractive brand, you are able to generate attention to your own brand. Human rights groups therefore have little incentive to focus on some obscure – even though murderous regime like Equatorial Guinea – because it will not make them visible in the human rights advocacy market.

Assume you have a consumer protection advocacy organization and you want to build your global brand. It does not give you sufficient visibility if you focus your campaign on some obscure company called Filiopa Cranta (what a difficult name!) that manufactures drugs and sells them in the rural areas of Papua New Guinea. However, if you can pitch your case against GloxoSmithKline, Novartis or better still Microsoft or Apple, you are likely to attract a lot of attention even if your case is weak.

In the world of human rights, Rwanda is likely to attract a lot of opportunistic brands trying to gain visibility by riding on it – not because it has a bad record but because it has an excellent one. For now, the solution to this crisis by the Rwanda government has been to rubbish these groups as ignorant and biased (at best) and most of the time to simply ignore them – a strategy akin to that of the ostrich – burying one’s head in the sand.

Ignoring a problem and despising its perpetrators in the hope that your own achievements will one day help you overcome their campaign is not a solution. In fact it has been the major reason behind the success of these groups – selling prejudice to a prejudiced world. Rwanda needs to take the war to these groups and consistently expose their lies, biases and prejudices. It needs to engage them directly where it matters most – in Rwanda.

Rwanda’s greatest asset in this war is actually the people of Rwanda whom these groups claim to speak for. In all opinion surveys by the most respectable polling organizations like Gallup Poll and World Values Survey, Rwandans say they feel free to speak, associate and express themselves by a margin of 85% – as good as one finds in democracies like Norway and Sweden. It will be humbling to see the advocates for freedom in Rwanda being told by ordinary Rwandans that they are actually free.

To out-fox its critics, Rwanda should be organizing conferences and inviting human rights groups and media to discuss these issues in Rwanda rather than in London and Paris. It also needs to invite hostile academics to Rwanda to make their case there – in the presence of Rwandans. All these people should be invited to attend the National Dialogue to see how things work. It should challenge them openly on the specific allegations they make. Incidentally, I believe many of these groups will begin to question their prejudices. But who will sell this strategy in Rwanda?

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