The drivers of cleanliness, order, and the brand of dignity Rwandans are building
In mid-May we were in Kigali, Rwanda, attending the World Economic Forum meetings. Across most of Kigali, there was something that has become a signature of everything in this country – order. The streets were clean to a fault, the city lawns were properly mowed, the flowers neatly pruned and the gardens around them carefully designed and tended to, the public garbage cans look better than anything I have seen in Paris or London, the traffic lights count time by the second and at night the street lights turn night into day. Everywhere people were walking – no dust or mud or open manholes that litter cities in many poor countries. Kigali has public parks that rival anything you have seen in Paris and the drainage system works.
But it is not these physical attributes that make Kigali exciting. It is the people. My best impression were the police officers from the country’s Counter Terrorism Unit (CTU), spotting neatly pressed black uniforms and shinning black boots. The way they conducted themselves, walking with a pride and elegance, ear pieces for security communication in the ears, pistols holstered on their hips and a few with semi automatic guns thrust across their chests. I hate to make this comparison (because of the neo-colonial ring) but they looked like American marines or some elite force from a developed country, not a police force of a poor country.
I spent a significant share of my time as a tourist guide, missing some events at the forum in order to take visitors around the city to see what this country looks like. We would drive from one end to another of Kigali with every road lined with palm trees, a pedestrian sidewalk; every shop builds a dust-proof pavement up to the sidewalk. The visitors would ask me what drives this passion for cleanliness and order. I would tell them that Rwandans have a word for this brand they are building. It is called agaciro – in English, dignity.
The cleanliness in Kigali is shaped by one crucial thing that makes Rwanda stand out generally- the dignity espoused by Rwandans in a post-genocide era.
The idea that Rwandans should live in dignity is something deeply rooted in the politics of post-genocide Rwanda. But for the nation to be dignified, individual citizens should have dignity. To have this dignity, they must have and do things that make a person dignified. So the post genocide state and government has actively sought to encourage Rwandans to live in a clean and neat physical environment but also to be clean and neat themselves as individuals.
The best and most effective form of leadership is leadership by example. So the government of Rwanda ensures that its public servants, the face of the state, must look neat and clean before ordinary citizens who must embrace this new Rwanda. To inculcate this spirit in the people, every last Saturday of every month everyone in Rwanda from the president downwards turns out for community work to ensure a clean neighborhood. On my Facebook page I have videos of President Paul Kagame, his wife Jeannette and their daughter Ange with folded sleeves cleaning a street or building some public infrastructure.
Why does the state in Rwanda with less popular demands upon it feel compelled to do all this? Why does it perform better at delivering public goods and services than nations with more developed democratic infrastructure like Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya, Ghana and Senegal? Because on most conventional benchmarks of measuring a democratic polity, these countries beat Rwanda hands down. But why do the leaders of Rwanda with less democratic pressure on them feel more obliged to serve than govern? I will revisit this question another day to argue that all too often, we focus too much on the rituals of democracy even when these rituals serve little or no democratic function. May be Africa needs a conversation on the substance of democracy?