Opinionista Michael Khorommbi 5 March 2019

Rwanda’s successes continue to confound its critics

On a continent where we have become so accustomed to hearing negative news, Rwanda under the leadership of Paul Kagame defies all the odds with its tenacity and creativity.

On 26 February 2019, the Rwandan government announced in a groundbreaking broadcast that it had launched a satellite named “Icyerekezo” (orientation, or direction in the Kinyarwanda language) in partnership with a UK company named OneWeb.

The satellite will provide internet connectivity to students at Nkombo Island, Lake Kivu. Under the leadership of President Paul Kagame, Rwanda is determined to address the lack of internet access in rural areas as it aims to transform the country from a low-income agriculture-based economy to a knowledge-based, service-oriented economy with a middle-income status, by 2020.

Rwanda is one of the fastest-growing African countries in information communication technology. Its commitment to providing internet connectivity in rural areas highlights its progress in the quest to become a knowledge-based economy. News of the satellite, similar to the country’s political and economic successes, was widely celebrated and once more the landlocked East African nation has distinguished itself from one of the most troubled regions on the continent.

Despite belonging to the Great Lakes Region, which is endowed with an abundance of natural resources, Rwanda has few natural resources. The nation’s economic success is fuelled by its zero tolerance for corruption and eagerness to partner with any investors and multinational corporations on some of its development projects. Furthermore, its successes can be attributed to good leadership and governance.

In order to appreciate Rwanda’s Vision 2020 development programme and National Strategy for Transformation 2017-2024, you have to understand where it has been.

It is undeniable that Kagame is one of the most controversial African heads of state whose reign, character, background, armed struggle, post-conflict reconstruction efforts and state-developmental model elicit both criticism and admiration. On 4 December 2018, Forbes Africa magazine named him the 2018 African of the Year, and described him as a “visionary”. In addition, he was the winner of the African of the Year in the All Africa Business Leaders Awards.

These awards provoked much controversy and hostility because of Kagame’s role in eradicating political opposition, an autonomous civil society and keeping tight control over the flow of information.

However, one could make an objection: If the awards are focusing exclusively on his contributions to reforms at the African Union during his tenure as the chair of the continental body and his contributions to reforms in Rwanda to attract foreign investors, it is arguably hard to say these awards are “glorifying a tyrant”.

Recently there has been an expansion in a scholarly comparative analysis: On the one hand, the overwhelming concentration of political, military and economic power woven around Kagame and on the other, the country’s state-directed development model — which seems to be exceptional and thriving.

Political analysts go to extremes of formulating catchy and provocative headlines in the form of questions. Some of my personal favourites: “Visionary or tyrant?”, “Visionary or despot, or both?”, “Kagame’s Rwanda: African success story or authoritarian state” and “Kagame could be the next Mandela”.

The question I am still grappling with relates to what happens after Kagame. Can his peace and political and economic successes — which critics say conceal unresolved deep-rooted tensions and resentments — extend well into the future?

Could the Rwandan Patriotic Front-led government render renewed conflict and political instability inevitable, both domestically and in the Great Lakes Region of Africa?

Kagame’s continued military involvement in the eastern region of the Democratic Republic of Congo will have a destabilising effect on Rwanda and the Great Lakes Region. The future security in both Rwanda and the region is closely linked and if Kagame could stop infringing on the DRC’s autonomy it could significantly enhance security in the entire region.

As a peace-studies scholar, I struggle to comprehend or argue the case of the sustainability, if any, of a developmental model that is devoid of peacebuilding and key features of liberal democracy, such as a willingness to countenance criticism and open political debate.

A number of inter-disciplinary scholars, practitioners and experts would concur with me that development and peacebuilding are inseparable.

However, it appears Rwanda’s economic growth, service delivery, health and education provision, good governance, anti-corruption stance, cleanliness and women’s empowerment are challenging this hypothesis.

Academic debate on Rwanda’s development model, centred on the ruling Rwanda Patriotic Front’s private business operations through two companies known as Tri-Star Investments and Crystal Ventures Ltd, has led to many scholars attributing it as sui generis, thus being inimitable in any African country.

Initially, most international academics, practitioners and experts in the field of macroeconomics consider Rwanda’s development model as not being feasible. However, it appears a new positive narrative towards Rwanda is emerging which acknowledges the government’s efficiency in managing its foreign assistance.

Even though the World Bank states that foreign aid makes up 30% to 40% of Rwanda’s total budget, the country’s progress cannot only be attributed to international development aid, but to the existing leadership principles and governance structures that ensure this aid benefits the Rwandan population.

It is undeniable that there have been major improvements in Rwanda over the past two decades in comparison to other foreign aid-dependent countries in sub-Saharan Africa, where it is misplaced through corruption.

Foreign aid has and continues to play a significant role in Rwanda’s economic successes, but how many countries in Africa can say the same thing? DM

Michael Khorommbi is a researcher on regional integration and peace building in Africa. He is currently studying for a Master of Science in Governance and Regional Integration at the Pan-African University Institute for Governance, Humanities and Social Sciences.

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