The Ironies of Rwanda’s Economic Development: “Two Steps forward, three steps back?”
I am lucky to have had a math teacher who combined philosophy and numbers. One of my favorite quotes from him reads as follows: “a fool is an individual who repeats the same mistake while expecting a different result”. Indeed, I have found this wisdom-pregnant phrase to apply in many instances of life. My passion being politics, and African politics to be specific, I continue to observe, in this wretched part of the world, politicians who promise change while visibly regurgitating policies that are guaranteed to cause havoc and misery. They loudly proclaim democracy while circumventing and undermining institutions that make democracy possible. They are too blind to recognize the irony of their claims, and will find the courage to announce economic growth while secretly partaking and spearheading in the looting of the government’s treasury. It is not uncommon for presidents in this milieu to own luxury jets, costing several hundred million dollars, which they shamelessly use during their ubiquitous begging trips to New York, Paris, London or Moscow.
In 1994, after the Rwandan civil war, Paul Kagame’s Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) emerged victorious, and gained credit for ending the genocidal carnage. The young rebels charmed and attracted friends from around the world. Foreign leaders, either guilty for not having done enough to end the genocide or for having a direct role in the massacres, pumped money into Rwanda in the hope of rebuilding a new society. From ashes, the Rwandan people quickly started showing signs of recovery. However, the politicians did not repent. For instance, the ruling RPF arrogantly continues to practice thuggish politics that is likely to return the country into the abyss that it once was.
It is impossible to completely discuss the dynamics of post genocide Rwanda—without having to write an entire book! However, in a nutshell, over the last 16 years, the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) has centralized power into a one man dictatorship. The dictator, Paul Kagame, is surrounded by a tiny English speaking Tutsi elite, who grew up as refugees in Uganda. The politics of exclusion that marked the pre-genocide years is still intact albeit manipulated and subtalized. The Hutu community, comprising of more than 85% of the population, is excluded from most positions of power. Even more insulting, politics, business and the civil service are all dominated by military personnel or former members of the RPF rebel group. In Africa, military regimes are known for dilapidating the continent. There is not even a single recorded instance, where military regimes have either promoted democracy or economic development. Indeed, due to the lack of a precedence, it is both useless and naïve to speculate such an occurrence.
As I write this blog post, the internet is jammed with horrifying news headlines streaming from Rwanda. Just do a quick google search and you will see for yourself. To name a few, the British based Guardian has this “Editor Blames security forces after Rwandan journalist shot dead”, The Economist, “Who is out to kill the dissidents?” and the New York Times, “Rwandan Editor Who accused Government Is Shot Dead”. Even think-tanks are now raising the alarm. The respected International Policy Network, which for years has heaped praise on Paul Kagame says “…[Kagame is] using state powers to make life a living hell for political opposition and trampling over freedom of speech that forms the backbone of civil and open society”. Political violence remains the chosen strategy for dealing with opposition politicians.
There is a need and a reason to set the record straight. Kagame has gained a lot of undeserved praise around the world. At home, he is still a press predator, a stumbling block to free institutions and a military despot ruling with an iron fist. At the very least, the people of Rwanda deserve the right to choose their own heroes/leaders. Since dictators all over the world loathe free election, Kagame has done everything within his power to compromise the upcoming election (August 2010) and to further consolidate his clinging grasp on power.
First, he has single handedly appointed all the members of the National Electoral Commission. The members of this electoral body are all former and current members of the RPF. Although the opposition has launched a protest, Kagame has not show any signs of accepting reform. If undeterred, such an arrangement will make it possible for him to manipulate, rig and control the elections.
Secondly, Kagame has imposed a constitution on Rwandans that openly endangers democracy. The document is full of clauses that pose a direct threat to fundamental principles that are the basis for a free soceity. The laws on Genocidal ideology have been quickly embraced to silence dissent and weaken the opposition. In addition, the legal provisions governing elections, for instance, give prospective candidates only 12 days to carry out an election campaign. Even with the small size of Rwanda, this is hardly enough time to travel around the country seeking votes and educating the masses on a party’s policy. In another sad instance, the current constitution has made it criminal to speak or write about the crimes perpetrated by the RPF regime during the civil war. This is, despite the fact that these crimes are well documented by internationally recognized institutions such as UNHCR and Human Rights Watch.
Lastly, Kagame has abolished real opposition and manufactured his “fantasy opposition” to replace it. These are several “independent” parties that sing and praise the RPF. They [the fantasy parties] only come out during the election period and are otherwise unknown to the general public. When they contest, they openly campaign for Paul Kagame and eventually give up their votes to the RPF. This is what enables Kagame to win with a Stalinistic 95% of the vote. The blocked opposition candidates include madame Victoire Ingabire, the chairperson of FDU-inkingi, who is still under house arrests while the chief prosecutor investigates her for “genocide ideology”. Analysts worry that this crime is vague and misused for political purposes. The other candidates, Frank Habineza of the Green Party and Bernard Ntaganda of the PS Imberakuri are either in jail or their parties will not be registered.
Another myth that needs to be counteracted is the much praised Rwanda’s economic development. To be sure, Rwandans are hard working and have succeeded in rebuilding a country that, due to war and genocide had been reduced to ashes. However, Paul Kagame’s policies have neglected the rural peasantry. Take a trip to my village in Rugumba and you will hear cries of widows and orphans who no longer can afford to eat once a day. My village is in the agricultural belt of Rwanda. For all the talk on Kagame’s liberal economic policies, you will painfully learn that his economic policies have placed restriction on what peasants produce and how they sell it. In the past, the forces of demand and supply would dictate the price at which the rural folks sell their produce. However, today, those who produce potatoes can only sell them through a “co-operative”. The cooperative is run by corrupt RPF appointees who determine the price for these produce. In addition, they charge exorbitant taxes that are channeled to the RPF fund or into the pockets of corrupt officials.
In recent years, the ability of micro-finance to change the lives of the poorest has won praise around the globe. In Rwanda, despite an array of Not-for-Profit organizations, there is little fruit. Despite the fact that Kagame has gained awards for making Rwanda a fertile ground for foreign investment, the reality on the ground is that the government is completely anti-business and acts in a way that highly regulates and interferes with domestic enterprise. If RPF cadres are building mansions in Kigali, it is not because of an increase in profits accrued from industry. It is because of foreign aid, the millions of dollars coming from rich countries that are mostly diverted into “cooperatives” or sham, ghost businesses owned by these individuals. Otheriwse, business is still primordial and primitively underdeveloped.
Yesterday, as is expected, president Kagame was invited by the UN secretary Ban Moon to co-chair on the committee of millennium goals. There is consensus around the world that only business will alleviate extreme poverty—and I personally subscribe to this dogma. The irony is that, in Rwanda, there is very little will for the government to empower peasants towards this direction. Take another example: tales abound in Africa of how lives have been changed, children sent to school through micro-initiatives. The entrepreneur is mostly a woman who sells tomatoes, matoke (plantains) or sweet potatoes by the street side. If you are ever in Kigali, you will see for yourself the never ending confrontation between the police force and street vendors. Street vending has been declared illegal to keep the city clean. Once, I personally heard these vendors lament that, “if they don’t allow us to trade freely we will join the FDLR rebel group…otherwise, how will we feed our children?”
Another fact is that, in order to keep the streets “clean” the peasants are often discouraged to go into the city/towns. There are regulations on how they should dress and what shoes they should wear—doesn’t this sound like a commy state? By the way, these are very impoverished rural women who must carefully decide whether to purchase a pair of shoe—required to enter Kagame’s towns—or buy food for their children. The point is, in Rwanda, small business is an endangered species. Paul Kagame is only interested in foreign investment. Of course, foreign investment will enable him to earn more taxes which will finance the Rwandan elite’s high-end lifestyle.
Another problem is the existence of a local and unpaid militia known as the Local Defense Forces (LDF). The LDF in their red uniforms terrorize civilians and disrupt business in the local village markets. They demand levies and bribes from local business people. Those who refuse to give in to their demands are beaten up or imprisoned. Kagame has yet to explain the necessity of this evil force. In the context of Rwanda, where gangs of militias have perpetrated the worst forms of violence, tolerating this kind of behavior is highly precarious and deserves condemnation.
At the same time, Kigali is experiencing unprecedented growth. Skyscrapers are competing to dominate the sky. Large mansions are born every day. The city is home to some of the wealthiest men in east Africa. It is this kind of misleading economic indicator that has deceived the international community and some aid practitioners into believing in a Rwandan “economic miracle”. However, a proper analysis of Rwanda’s economic growth must be willing to distinguish between the “Rwandan elite” and the “Rwandan peasant.” The peasants are the drivers of the economy, they produce; the elites are the beneficiary of the economy, the consumers. Just because the elites drive the latest brands of European cars or have bungalows akin to those that exist in the American suburbs, does not mean that the economy is improving. The true test of Rwanda’s economic growth is in the rural areas. Are the lives of the peasants changing? Are the elites developing initiatives or businesses that will improve the standards of living for ordinary rural folks? Sadly, the answer to this question leans to the negative.
Several western academics and politicians, who will remain anonymous, should feel ashamed of praising and protecting yet another African tyrant. They know better that an orange tree will never produce apples. Kagame’s despotism cannot safeguard democracy; neither can it guarantee economic reformation. Ultimately, he and his policies are bound to fail. The latest attacks on basic human freedoms are just but the tip of the iceberg. At this juncture, before the situation worsen, it is important that the west stands in support of the Rwandan people for some meaningful democratic change.