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The enigma that is Rwanda

As the world celebrates what Rwanda has been able to achieve in the last 25 years and how many Africans seem ready to embrace the Kagame way, the inevitable and uncomfortable question is whether democracy is overrated, asks Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya.

This week Rwanda commemorated 25 years since the end of one of the most brutal forms of genocide — not that there are more preferable types of mass murder. 

Still, the murder of some 800,000 in just over three months, in a method some commentators have described as “low tech genocide” because of the basicness of the weapons used – machetes, pangas and even garden instruments — will always be a black mark on the conscience of humanity, not just Africa. 

Rwanda has come a long way since those days. “In 1994, there was no hope, only darkness. Today, light radiates from this place … How did it happen? Rwanda became a family once again. The arms of our people, intertwined, constitute the pillars of our nation. 

“We hold each other up. Our bodies and minds bear amputations and scars, but none of us is alone. Together, we have woven the tattered threads of our unity into a new tapestry”, said Rwandan President Paul Kagame at a ceremony in remembrance of the genocide at the beginning of April.

Whether it is their extensive public relations stunt or fact, Rwanda is winning the battle for the minds and hearts of Africans and getting attention of the West.

South African Minister of Finance Tito Mboweni recently visited Rwanda’s capital city, waxing lyrical about how clean the city is compared with those of his home country.

Rwanda’s record as a safe city day or night resonates with many in South Africa, where the fear of being a crime victim at home or on the streets remains high.

Just recently, Rwanda launched a satellite to provide broadband internet to rural schools. This is aimed at bridging the digital gap between rural and urban Rwanda. All this at the time South Africa was experiencing rolling electrical blackouts.

Rwanda carries a few lessons for Africa. 

The first and perhaps most obvious is that tribal or ethnic loyalties ahead of a broader national agenda can be devastating.

The second lesson is more controversial. In fact, it is not even a straight forward lesson, rather a question. Rwanda presents a dilemma that is increasingly finding its way onto mainstream platforms. It asks the difficult question: whether Africa needs democracy to develop to the levels that those in the global north take for granted.

What is not in dispute is that Rwanda has scored impressive development indices compared to those just a quarter of a century ago. The pace and singlemindedness of pursuing development — at what appears to be any cost — has earned it the nickname “the Singapore of Africa”.

The country has one of the world’s highest representation of women in structures of political power and business influence. The World Economic Forum ranks Rwanda sixth out of 149 countries in terms of gender parity.

More Rwandans (76%) now have access to a water supply than had been the case 25 years ago (around 60%).

The country spends 10% its GDP on health. Whereas in 1995 it spent $21.95 per person on health, by 2014 Rwanda was spending $125 on each citizen’s health and it’s starting to show.

Simon Allison, writing in the Mail & Guardian in July 2017 said, “[t]he improvements for the country’s 11.6‑million-strong population are almost unbelievable. Life expectancy is up to 64.5 years from just 49 in 2000. Child mortality is down more than two-thirds. Maternal mortality is down nearly 80%. HIV/Aids prevalence is down to 3% from 13%. There is now one doctor for every 10,555 people, compared to one doctor for every 66,000 people in 2000.

“Dr Olushayo Olu, the WHO’s Rwanda director, says the extraordinary statistics are supported by the WHO’s own research and talks me through how Rwanda did it. ‘The main ingredient is visionary leadership. It’s about having a target, saying we want to be there in the future and understanding obstacles in the way.’”

Like Singapore, Rwanda seems to have made the controversial trade-off of choosing authoritarian rule in exchange for fast pace development.

For example, today Rwanda’s GDP is at around $765 per capita, up from $205 at the time of the genocide. Of course, GDP does not tell the full story of economic inclusivity. Two out of three Rwandans live in abject poverty, surviving on $1.25 a day.

It is not by chance that the country is often called the Singapore of Africa. And if Rwanda is Africa’s Singapore, then Kagame must be Africa’s Lee Kwan Yew, the not-statesman who transformed the small port city into a wealthy hub. 

Lee has sometimes been described as a pragmatic authoritarian for what he has been able to achieve while ruling the city-state with an iron fist.

Like Lee was in power for 31 years, Rwanda’s parliament has amended the constitution to allow Kagame to be able to stay in power until 2034, provided he is elected in the intervening years’ elections. If Kagame stays until then, he would have been in power for 39 years.

Although Kagame appears to be generally popular (he got almost 99% of all votes in the last election), he is by no means a ‘nice guy’. At best, his followers would describe him as a benevolent dictator or an enlightened despot.

The country’s electoral commission disqualified three candidates saying they did not meet eligibility requirements. One of the three candidates, Diane Rwigara suddenly had nude pictures of her appearing on social media.

Amnesty International has criticised Rwanda’s record with regards to freedoms of expression and association, disappearances and state-sanctioned killings of government critics.

Kagame does not pretend to have embraced all the trappings of liberal democracy, but he believes it is a necessary choice given where his country has been. 

“Rwandans will not tolerate voices that promote a return to the ethnic divisionism that precipitated the genocide 18 years ago. To that extent, we place limits on freedom of expression in a similar way to how much of Europe has made it a crime to deny the Holocaust. Aside from that, Rwanda is a very open and free country”, said Kagame in 2010.

This could easily have come from the ‘Lee guide to being a dictator’.

“Whoever governs Singapore must have that iron in him, or give it up. I have spent a whole lifetime building this and as long as I’m in charge, nobody is going to knock it down”, Lee told a rally in 1980. 

The Rwanda story is a cautionary tale. Tribalism and ethnic allegiances are dangerous in nations coming into their own.

For societal leaders, especially democrats, it should be concerning.

There are clearly a good number of people who would rather have a dictator delivering peace and development, than a democrat under whose leadership the populace feels besieged and hopeless. But, by failing to deliver developmental services, even the most ardent democrats might be cultivating the ground for despots.

Rwanda’s message is clear, the devil that delivers much-needed services is ultimately better than the angel whose song makes no difference in the lived lives of those who hear the song.

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.