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What makes Rwanda different?

The drivers of cleanliness, order, and the brand of dignity Rwandans are building

Rwandans 2

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?


  1. Dignity. This concept can mobilise most of Africa in taking intellectual, political and economic ownership of her destiny. To someone like me who has ended up thinking you can set small objectives and once you have ticked the boxes, you move on, I think we must say NO to food imports. West African food imports grew by 300% in the last 10 years. I believe East Africa could be a pioneer in this department and energise its people around local brands of transformed goods. I would love to read on this subject further. The agricultural/industrial revolutions we are about to embark on must be a source of pride and dignity. Grassroots movements must be created around our thinking elites to accompany the massive investments in infrastructure which have been made. Rwandans believe in Rwanda and they do not let its current status as a poor Nation alter their belief. They have reprogrammed their brains. Not every Nation will become like Rwanda but tue concept of dignity is a powerful one. When Mwenda teased his people with images of Kigali, Ugandan dignity was on full show. I did a similar experience with a Francophone public when the Kayoola bus came out of Uganda. We need media ready to highlight all these amazing stories and ready to expose the historical and contemporary weaknesses of Western Nations on all levels. When I reconnect on social media, I will only focus on highlighting the positive of Africa. Reclaiming one’s dignity is a powerful motivator.

  2. Maybe i need to consult Wikipedia on the definition of democracy if Uganda is example of democratic countries in Africa. The Autocrat admitted giving NRM leaning MP’s 5 Million shillings so that they can vote Jacob Oulanya as deputy speaker. He even appeared in person in parliament to intimidate any challengers to his dynasty.

  3. Previously, someone has come out to state that
    whenever Mwenda writes about Rwanda, then, one should expect Rajab’s ugly head
    to pop out. Implicitly indicting me of being the “ranter.” If satan
    cannot take a nap, how do you expect God to even blink? Impossible. I am aware
    that by persistently refusing to accept whatever is being done by the Kagame
    regime, I also make the risk of being branded a hater. However, I am a
    researcher and a consumer of research, I will rather gleefully take that risk
    than to blindly follow the elliptical fallacy that is being dangled around. I’ve
    been on a psychological trip. A journey instigated by Andrew Mwenda’s change of
    thinking. Andrew informed my thinking when I was still at Kibuli Secondary
    School and at a tender age of 14 years. Ever since that time I have been an
    avid reader to this day and hopefully sine die. Like the considerable number of
    Ugandans, I hurt too- to the drastic change in Mwenda’s analytical
    sensibilities lately. Mwenda was the consummate writer, his statements of fact,
    statements of value, explanations and conclusions were flawless. He always
    brought out the symmetrical dissection on any topical discussion. When I grew
    up and setup my offices in Industrial area, I would buy the Independent, get
    into my office and lock myself in. Until I was finished with the
    “Independent nutrition”, I would never let in anyone not even a
    buzzing fly. My loyalty has never wavered even when I crossed to the other side
    of the Pacific. But far from then, now, Mwenda mercilessly strangles his own
    articles. He cannot publish an article and not put a “disclaimer”
    which might read, “When I was still younger and intelligent”, or, “but
    I have now grown old and stupid.” To an ordinary eye, this might appear
    frivolous and could attract entertainment value. But Andrew is a journalist.
    Other than to simply allude to the age factor, what other factors does he give
    to explain this change? I want to think and
    humbly state that Mwenda’s “U” turn was brought onto him and not unto
    himself. We as a country (Uganda) and as a continent (Africa) have been into
    captivity for quite some time now. In threatening and survival
    situations, we look for evidence of hope – a small sign that the situation may
    improve. When a captor shows the victim some small kindness, even though it is
    to the abusers benefit as well, the victim pours elixir onto the captor’s trait.
    This is more of a survival
    technique, however, it can become so intense that the victims actually develop
    anger toward those trying to help them. If, for instance, we only have a dollar
    in our pocket, then most of our decisions become financial decisions. If our controller
    is an abuser, then the majority of our decisions are based on our perception of
    the abuser’s potential reaction. We become preoccupied with the needs, desires,
    and habits of the abuser. To whom is Andrew trying to help? Me, you or himself?
    That question is reflective.

  4. Again, you state some right facts about Rwanda but too shy to call on leaders in Uganda to their responsibility. I understand that true leadership is supposed to be consequential and not mere followership per se. At the WEF, PK stated to the likes of Andrew ” There are many things we can’t afford, but do wealso need money to sweep our compounds”. There are many things that are not working in Africa and Uganda, which are as a result of leaders failing to hit the right chord with the masses-our leaders and their families live at large and yet ask their followers to tighten their belts?? It can’t and won’t work. As you rightly said Andrew, Umuganda is successful largely because Pk preaches water and drinks the same, or the public so thinks. In Uganda, our President is simply reminding us how rich he is, expanding his clowns in Parliament, paying them as they and he wishes etc.while the police he uses to keep public discontent are now threatening to protest due to non-payment of allowances. True, leaders reflect who we are but who we are is shaped and molded by those in leadership. That said, let us not exaggerate stuff: there are muddy areas in Kigali, slummy ones too. There are beautiful places in Kampala and Uganda’s rural construction is unbeatable in the region- as we admire Kigali, Rwandans admire rural Kabale, Ntungamo, Mbarara, Masaka and the houses Ugandans have constructed. The lesson is simple. We have a lot to learn from each other, our leaders can and should be demanded to do more to facilitate learning of these lessons across borders and communities or get out of the kitchen. These things can be done. Stop presenting Rwanda’s story as an unreplicatable miracle. M7 wields as much power as PK, he chooses to use it to keep Lukwago out of office but not to clean the streets. It is a choice issue. M7 has not promoted dignity in Uganda, the leadership surrounding him tells you as much. To a large extent, you now have to be a crook to come through the ‘democratic’ process in our Country and M7 likes it that way.
    Poverty doesn’t explain the reason Africa is in a sorry state, mismanagement does. How do you explain the life of an Angolan and its rulers beyond the first daughter being one of the richest on the continent without any trade? How do you explain Equatorial Guinea’s GDP pa capita of $ 20,000 with majority of the people in abject poverty? How do you explain Nigeria’s poverty with its oil?

  5. Denis Musinguzi

    I am not a regular visitor to Rwanda, and I know nothing a bit beyond the immaculate environs of Kigali. I am therefore not sure of how much Kigali is replicated to other major towns of Rwanda, to the small trading centers, and finally to the households. With deep admission of ignorance, I wish we should not run the risk of basing on the cosmetic beauty of Kigali to judge the beauty of Rwanda as a country and its humanity. And how much, anyway, does this mundane beauty translate to actual human dignity upon which it is said to be based? Someone in the know could answer me. Just asking!

    • Namesake, the organisation of urban spacein Rwanda is not limited to Kigali. Even a small border town like Rwempasha and Nyagatare, buildings had to be broken to enforce the new plans. Ruhengeri has pedestrian walkways and streetlighting that we haven’t begun to even imagine. Kigali is not replicted only in major towns but all urban spaces.

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