A nation heals itself

2011-05-21 11:41

Rwandans tend to get irritated when foreigners remark on how clean their country is.

“What did you expect?” President Paul Kagame is said to have asked First World visitors, sending them into paroxysms of politically correct backtracking.

From a South African perspective, Rwanda is strikingly clean – not a speck of litter on the pavements of the capital, Kigali, where weeds are trimmed regularly by workers rhythmically swinging machetes.

Yet it is not the cleanliness that makes Rwanda exceptional. Rather, it is the fact that eight years ago litter was everywhere.

Plastic bags lined roads, clogged drains and spoilt hillsides.

The story of what happened to all that mess is what is so fascinating.

There was nothing unusual about the plan to clean Rwanda.

A law passed in 2003 outlawed plastic bags and, as in countless other countries around the world, the government embarked on an anti-littering awareness campaign.

The difference in Rwanda is that it seemed to spark a profound ­culture change.

Sooner or later you see the ethos in action.

When you see a passerby telling a vendor to pick up the airtime vouchers discarded by the tourist he sold them to, you start to believe stories like the one told by MP Francis Kaboneka: how a taxi once flagged down a bus from which some litter had been thrown in order to make the passengers walk back to pick it up.

Uniting around a cause has always been part of Rwandan culture, says Kaboneka.

It is a great strength, allowing government to mobilise collective action.

But it is also a weak point. It’s one of the factors that led to the 1994 genocide when the Hutu majority rose up and slaughtered more than a million of their Tutsi compatriots in 100 days.

One of the manifestations of Rwandan collective action is umuganda, a tradition of communal work where neighbours pitch in to help each other.

Government used it in the anti-littering drive to mobilise the country in the clean-up campaign.

Today the tradition is formalised so that every Rwandan spends the last Saturday of the month building houses, schools and roads. Ask what would happen if one chose not to participate, and the answer invariably is: “You’d be ashamed.”

Another major factor in Rwanda’s ability to effect social change is the country’s authoritarian ­government, centred on Kagame and his inner circle of ex-freedom fighters turned development technocrats.

With a single-minded obsession on Vision 2020, their plan to turn Rwanda into a middle-income country over the next nine years, they are increasing their reputation as corruption fighters.

This is evidenced, says the permanent secretary of finance Kampeta Sayinzoga, by the fact that Rwanda is set to become the only country where the World Bank uses local procurement systems for its projects.

Local government minister James Musoni ascribes government efficiency to a “decentralised” system in which the country, about one and a half times the size of Gauteng, is divided into 30 districts, each governed by an elected mayor.

“You take elected local leaders, you take them for a seminar, you teach them. We show them the benefits, give them tools, kits, and they go back. They really do a great job.”

But the local leaders are all deployed from the all-powerful ruling Rwanda Patriotic Front.

Underperforming ones “are persuaded to withdraw their candidatures” at the next election, according to a senior journalist at government mouthpiece The New Times.

Well-performing districts are awarded with extra budget allocations, creating competition among the local structures, says Musoni.

The scene is thus set for major social transformation, making the clean-up look like a minor ­exercise. Primary school enrolment is close to 100%.

Kigali, with its 1.2 million inhabitants, has ­fewer incidents of crime than a single ­suburb in South Africa. Giant ­satellite dishes embrace the sky, making internet quick, cheap and ubiquitous. Malaria infections have dropped by 70% since 2005.

The economy is growing consistently between 7% and 8% yearly.

Rwanda continues to astound economic analysts. Charles Robertson of Renaissance Capital, an emerging market investment bank, describes Rwanda as the “greatest positive shock” of his ­career. “To be a Singapore of Africa is Rwanda’s ambition and, in our view, it is succeeding,” he says.

But Rwanda faces two formidable meta-challenges. The first is transforming the population, 85% of whom are subsistence farmers, into a workforce suitable for a modern economy. Apart from huge investment in education, the government has embarked on a massive land reform programme.

Peasant farmers live scattered across Rwanda, the densest rural population in Africa.

The ­programme requires the formal demarcation of millions of plots and the settling of land disputes – some ancient, some stemming from the genocide and some caused by the insistence of the state that farmers consolidate plots and move into ­agglomerated villages for better access to basic services.

A retired politician critical of the government’s often harsh top-down reforms, tempers his criticism when it comes to the land ­reform process.

Speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of ­being branded unpatriotic, he cites the sudden ban on bicycle taxis in Kigali, leaving thousands of young men out of work, as well as the abrupt shift from French to English as the medium of education as examples of an authoritarian rule.

But he acknowledges the difficulty of the land ­reform process and ­says his approach is cautious and consultative.

If the land reform does not ­succeed, it is bound to exacerbate Rwanda’s most intractable problem: reconciliation and political freedom.

The two are inextricably linked because government claims that widely criticised repressive measures, including the incarceration of opposition figures and ­critical journalists, are necessary to stop the country from sliding back into ethnic divisions.

Critics, however, say the ­government uses the genocide to entrench one-party rule. “The law on genocide is so vaguely worded that it can generally be used to silence would-be dissenters,” says the retired politician.

Ominously, the government is blamed for being behind extrajudicial killings and assassination of dissenters, including the attempted assassination of former general Faustin Kayumba Nyamwasa in ­Johannesburg last year.

Denying this, government supporters argue that the threat from extremists waiting to foment tensions between Hutus and Tutsis is real and that political freedom must be limited to prevent any the use of ethnicity as a political base.

The government has done much to promote reconciliation, promoting an ideology based on the idea that “we are all Rwandans”, celebrating forgiveness and implementing the innovative Gacaca system of confession of genocide crimes before community courts made up of village leaders.

But there seems to be an element of denial in its approach. A survey by the National Unity and Reconciliation Commission into social attitudes in Rwanda absurdly does not once mention the words Tutsi or Hutu.

It speaks only of genocide survivors and perpetrators, and makes generalised statements, such as the one that 58% of Rwandans feel that it is naive to trust others, compared with 50% of Americans.

Kagame is clearly going for broke, hoping to solve ethnic ­differences by heaving his country into modernity and prosperity.

He struck his usual defiant tone in a speech at the Kigali stadium on the 17th commemoration of the genocide.

The West, having turned its back on Rwanda in its hour of greatest need, and to this day harbouring suspected genocidaires, is in no position to give Rwanda lessons in democracy and human rig

hts, he said.

His speech was punctuated by the cathartic cries of genocide survivors gathered at the stadium, echoes of the screams that rang out for 100 days 17 years ago.

They are not as intense, observers remarked. But they still bear testimony to a deep and lasting pain.

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