Book Review: Do not disturb the narrative that is the Rwandan economic lion

Book Review: Do not disturb the narrative that is the Rwandan economic lion

In her latest spellbinding book, veteran journalist Michela Wrong dispels the off-the-chart growth and supposed economic development claimed by Rwanda’s spin doctors

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

In its overview on Rwanda, the World Bank has the following to say: “Rwanda has achieved impressive development gains since the 1994 genocide and civil war… Growth averaged 7.2% over the decade to 2019, while per capita growth domestic product (GDP) grew at 5% annually.”

Those are off-the-chart growth figures that are usually associated with China and other Asian Tiger economies. In the green hills of central Africa, a lion economy roars. The big cat metaphor is apt, though not in the way that Kigali’s spin doctors would like to market their feline to potential investors and aid donors.

In veteran journalist Michela Wrong’s rendering in her superb new book, Do Not Disturb: The Story of a Political Murder and an African Regime Gone Bad, the Rwandan lion is predatory. But it is careful not to bite the hands that feed it. Outright predation is reserved for dissidents or the mineral wealth of the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Potential cash cows are also prey, but in a culture with a reverence for cattle, they are milked. Indeed, from the World Bank’s udders Rwanda has extracted over $4-billion since the genocide. The cunning of the cat is still at work.

“Do Not Disturb” was the sign on a hotel room in Johannesburg’s posh Sandton district – the Michelangelo to be precise – where Patrick Karegeya, once Rwanda’s head of external intelligence, was found murdered at the start of 2014. Anyone who doubts that Rwandan President Paul Kagame’s regime ordered the hit has drunk Kigali’s Kool-Aid – and Wrong has made a compelling case that effectively closes this one.

Those who insist on keeping a “Do Not Disturb” on Kigali in the name of supposed economic or development success are like the ostrich of myth that sticks its head in the sand. That gives the lion the cover it needs to grab the monetary eggs the big bird lays.

Wrong has dissected his menacing regime with the precision of a surgeon, revealing an African mirage that has wooed guilt-ridden Western donors who have hailed Rwanda as an economic miracle while turning a blind eye to its atrocities, which include the extrajudicial murder of dissidents in other African nations.

Plenty of other reviews have been written since this book was published. The focus here is on the economic narrative, and the troubling questions raised in an era when Western investors and donors are supposed to be concerned about matters such as enviromental, social and governance concerns.

“… there are signs that the wheels are beginning to come off Rwanda’s ‘development miracle story.’ Over the past five years, a small group of jaundiced former insiders and increasingly vocal development experts have begun challenging the country’s statistical record. The angriest dismiss Rwanda as a Potemkin village, a sophisticated con trick, with the donors cast in the role of useful idiots,” Wrong writes.

There is the testimony of the economist David Himbara – responsible for Rwanda’s questionable ranking on the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business index – who claims to have witnessed Kagame beat people with sticks over the choice of the shop used to buy curtains for the presidential office. Kagame’s ministers at one point told him that Rwanda’s economy had grown 11% in 2008, just like China’s. When Kagame asked Himbara for his view, he told his boss that it was simply not possible to have achieved such a growth figure when coffee and tea demand had declined. Himbara was duly sacked, and Rwanda’s growth figure for 2008 is still officially logged as 11.2%.

Then there were the findings of Oxford Policy Management (OPM), a highly regarded UK consultancy. Its number-crunching in 2015 revealed rising rates of poverty, which the government claimed were falling – at a time when Kagame was laying the groundwork for a constitutional referendum to allow him to run for election again. OPM would also be shown the door, and its experts never signed off on the final report.

One statistician – who has remained anonymous, perhaps out of fear of the lion’s claws – has written a series of penetrating articles in the peer-reviewed African Journal of Political Economy, which show that Rwandan poverty rates have indeed probably increased over the past decade. That calls into question Rwanda’s economic growth performance. Wrong notes that economists “have wondered for years what – other than illegal minerals exports from DRC – could justify its year-on-year buoyancy”.

Rwandans have actually coined a term for data doctoring: guteknika.

All of this obviously raises serious concerns about governance in Rwanda, its famously clean streets notwithstanding. This is a demonstrably repressive government that has laundered conflict minerals through the global economy while literally hunting opponents abroad. And it employs guteknika to spin a narrative of rapid economic growth and poverty reduction.

Although Wrong does not make this specific comparison – this is not a criticism, it is just one of the many of the angles that come to mind – it is instructive to juxtapose the West’s relations with Zimbabwe, where the late Robert Mugabe’s murderous and economically destructive Zanu-PF government was rightly derided for its appalling human rights record. But even there, more tears were shed for the death of one lion named Cecil than the tens of thousands of Zimbabweans slain in the Matabeleland massacres of the 1980s.

The real opprobrium for Mugabe began when his policies laid waste to the economy and threatened the lives and livelihoods of white farmers. Kagame, by contrast, has woven a narrative of economic success and “investor-friendly” policies built on doctored GDP and other data. This has echoes of the Cold War, when human rights meant far less to Washington and Moscow than pliant African governments who provided strategic or economic services to their paymasters.

In this case, it is Western donors, governments, non-governmental organisations and investors who are pliant and being led by the nose by the wily Kagame. He has certainly won over the Davos crowd.

Wrong has done a service by setting the record straight on Rwanda in her always readable fashion.

Her perspective on the Rwandan lion is not that of the wilfully blind ostrich. It is that of the hawk. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for free to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers at these Pick n Pay stores.


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