Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Is Rwanda the model for state development in Africa, part I

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A few key individuals have sought to portray post-genocide Rwanda as the model for Africa. The image of an economically fast rising Rwanda is often the key subject of local and international media. Local journalists such as Andrew Mwenda and Charles Abbo Onyango, always seem to be putting so much effort in order to keep this conceptualization alive. Indeed, just a day ago, Mwenda’s newspaper, the independet ran a series of articles to remind his audience of the Rwandan miracle. Is Rwanda really the model for the rest of Africa to emulate? Or is the rosy image of the country just another product of lazy and mythical journalism?

To be sure, not all journalists and intellectuals have given in to this popular branding. Respected scholars on Rwanda, continue to ask hard questions and dispel the many myths that have tended to obscure the reality. One of the fierce critics of Paul Kagame’s regime, Filip Reyntjens often refers to Rwanda as the “the army with a state”. I believe this depiction to be very accurate. Considering the recently released Mapping Report that contains “damning” evidence that Kagame’s military could have committed genocide against Hutu refugees in the Congo, the criticism is likely to be more heated.

Writing for the Guardian recently, Professor Ali Mazrui notes that, “[there are] countries that are unlikely to be democratised before the end of this century. Particularly vulnerable are dual societies, where two rival ethnic groups account for the majority of the population – notably Burundi and Rwanda (with their Hutu/Tutsi rivalry). Though this is not particularly in line with the popular categorization of Rwanda i.e. as the model for development in Africa, it mires close to the reality.

Perhaps, I am more hopeful than Mazrui, for I think that being a “dual society” is not an excuse enough for not democratizing. After all, countries like Belgium face the same challenge, but seem to make progress towards tolerance and democracy. As a country, Rwanda is not under some perennial curse that weakens her capacity to be civil. Rwanda is not condemned to be the African slaughter house. Change can be realized, but change has to be in line with the reality.

The myths have to be deconstructed for our nation to progress. Otherwise, such thinking stands as a stumbling block to development. For instance, it is difficult to talk about the need for democracy in a country that is touted as having the largest number of female parliamentarians. Similarly, it is impossible to give a coherent reason, why a country that is said to be free of corruption, is jailing independent journalists, slaying opposition leaders and exiling its youths in secluded islands. The ambivalent nature of such a narrative is, to say the least, very disturbing.

A Model for State Development

It’s true that Rwanda shows some vital signs of an infant state. Just to mention a few examples, the country’s military is very efficient and a leading participant in peacekeeping missions. The Rwanda revenue authority is a modernizing tax collecting body that effectively keeps the country running. The police are relatively less corrupt when compared to neighboring countries; though they remain unbeaten for their notorious partisan allegiance. The few available roads are functional, and for a country that takes so much effort in keeping an appealing external image, the streets of Kigali are forever clean.

However, we need to ask if this is enough for state development? Have we set standards too low for African countries?

It is important to note that the only functioning institutions are the ones that keep the ruling party in power. As such, it is within the party’s interest to safeguard and strengthen them. Institutions that are likely to promote multiple thought and diversity are severely curtailed. That is why the media is an endangered species; that is why the legal system is still in such a sorry state.

The Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF), has for the last 16 years, tried (and quite successfully so) to control all avenues of state authority. As former Kagame’s allies continue to tell us, “While elections are held in Rwanda, the results are predetermined”. Forget the gender progress report! Anyone who knows Rwanda well and is honest enough will tell you that, women are still the marginalized of the marginalized. The fallacy that women make up a huge chunk of the parliament, as I have argued before, is in fact, a negative force in the struggle for gender equality. For it gives the wrong impression that everything is well.

Real power is still in the hands of men, and a few men for that matter—most of them, former top guerrilla fighters in the RPF. The gender balance thing becomes another Kagame’s media ploy which he readily uses to masquerade as a champion for the oppressed. He readily uses such a situation to transform his image from that of a merciless warlord, to that of a compassionate and modern statesman.

How can you have women as the highest number of parliamentarians, when there is consensus that no real elections are ever held? What is even the need for having a parliament in such conditions?

It is clear that every policy and institution in Rwanda is tailored to fit the desires of the ruling party. Given such a scenario, it is difficult to see how what effort Rwanda is making towards state development. For a nation cannot be built in the absence of free, impartial and competitive institutions. The key motivation for Kagame and his allies is to maintain absolute power. Sadly, they do so in both private and public spheres.

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