Rwanda's Struggle for a Better Future

‘The international community failed Rwanda and that must leave us always with a sense of bitter regret.’ These were the words of the then United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan in 2004 during a genocide memorial conference.

In April 1994, Juvénal Habyarimana , the then Rwandan Hutu president was killed when his plane was shot down. This triggered a genocide that took place between April and July, leaving an estimated 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus killed. Later that July, the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) captured Rwanda's capital Kigali and proceeded to take over power.

With the shadow of the genocide hanging heavily over it, Rwanda began the painful and difficult rebuilding process. But how do you rebuild a country whose very social, economic and political foundations had been demolished during the genocide? Every new day in Rwanda provides different answers to this question.

Twenty years after the genocide, rebuilding is still ongoing in a halting, yet steady manner. Rwanda’s president Paul Kagame once addressed this complex interaction between his country’s past and future during a State banquet in honor of Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni.

“I think all people are shaped by their own life experiences and have within them the motivation and wisdom to deal with challenging situations, something that allows them to chose fight over flight. They fight not only for their survival but also for a better life. It is also true that by confronting extreme adversity as we did, people draw lessons that help them find solutions to daunting problems.”

So what lessons has Rwanda learnt?

According to President Kagame, some key lessons are to be found in governance and leadership. Before 1994, the Rwanda Patriotic Front had a singular, overriding goal of liberating the nation.  Once liberation was attained, the president transferred his sense of mission and intensely focused approach to governing. It is a vindication of his decisive leadership that Rwanda is now standing head to head with its older, bigger neighbours like Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania.

Some fault President Kagame’s approach as dictatorial. The Guardian Newspaper’s Chris McGreal interviewed President Kagame and unearthed some very interesting insights into the fifty-six year old Rwandan President.

Despite the misgivings, grave or otherwise that one may have of President Kagame, there is no denying the fact that Rwanda has made strides that would have been unimaginable in the aftermath of the genocide. Apart from the national strides, Rwanda is now a key player in East Africa. The fact that the East African Community is now being led by Dr. Richard Sezibera, a Rwandan national, has thrust Rwanda right into the heart of the regional body. On a bilateral level, Rwanda continues to cultivate mutually beneficial relations with all the other four East African Countries.

Particularly special is the relationship with Uganda, which occupies a unique place in Rwanda’s history. Uganda hosted thousands of Rwandans before and during the genocide, many of whom were involved in President Museveni’s own struggle to oust the dictatorship in his country at the time.

Indeed, President Kagame has credited this particular Uganda struggle for having inspired and strengthened the resolve of Rwandans in their own subsequent struggle.

Rwanda is miles ahead of other African countries in gender equality and parity. In 2008, Rwanda’s parliament became the first in the world to elect a majority of women. One third of cabinet positions are also held by women. On the legislative front, Rwanda has put in place land reforms that include gender parity in ownership of communal land.

In the private sector, Rwanda has a one-stop center for investors and has made investing in the country an efficient, seamless experience. Because of changes implemented in 2008 and 2009, the World Bank recognized Rwanda as the world’s top reformer in adopting business regulation reforms. Consequently, the Bank raised Rwanda’s ranking in the World Bank “Ease of Doing Business” indicators from 143 in the world to 67, the largest single year increase by any country since the World Bank first published the rankings in 2003.  Rwanda now ranks 58 in the world, first in Eastern Africa and fifth in Africa.

But when the coin is flipped, the conflicting realities of today’s Rwanda begin to take shape. It is undeniable that the country has made great strides on the path of reconstruction, development and governance. However, this victory strides seem to have left bits and pieces of failure in their track.

The United Nations Development Programme’s Human Development Report of 2013 ranks Rwanda 151 in the world, consigning it in the category of countries with low human development. This ranking uses the Human Development Index (HDI), which is a comparative measure of life expectancy, literacy, education and general standards of living.

As per this report, many Rwandans are still not reaping the fruits of their country’s growth and progress.

These conflicting realities must however be viewed through the lens of pragmatism. For starters, Rwanda has had the twin challenge of addressing reconstruction and development at the same time. Within reconstruction, is the complex matter of reconciliation. Explicit ethnic identity has no place in this climate of reconciliation. Although some say that criminalizing or suppressing ethnic identity has the potential of backfiring years or even decades down the road and resulting in recrimination.

Such difficult crossroads are not uncommon in Rwanda. Black or white is a luxury that the country just doesn’t have, leaving it with many grey zones. It’s never really this or that. Prosperity and justice for all is neither here nor there.

Just like any other country, Rwanda has both rich and poor citizens. Just like the United States keeps reaching out for a more perfect union, Rwanda too has fallen short of perfection on many fronts, more so in the sensitive matter of media and political freedom together with the pressing issues that that have left it in the bottom tier of UNDP’s Human Development Report. Since this report focuses on the overall wellbeing of a people and the sustainability of that wellbeing, Rwanda still has a long struggle ahead. However, the same report ranks Libya as the top country in Africa. What?! Exactly..

President Kagame touched on Rwanda’s long struggle in a previous July 4th Rwanda Liberation day address, ‘the struggle to reclaim our dignity, the struggle for progress, the struggle for Rwandans to live in security, peace and tranquillity, to be in good health, to earn a good education, to work and develop; such struggle is not, and has never been, easy. In such a struggle we must expect to encounter many hurdles.’

Hurdles. Indeed, this is the one word that sums up Rwanda’s conflicting realities. Gender parity at top levels yet gender empowerment at grassroots level struggles. An investment boom in urban areas even as rural folks struggle for basic needs. For external observers, these realities may be a vindication of failed policies. Yet they are just examples of hurdles – difficult problems – that Rwanda has to address in an honest and decisive manner.   

As Miguel de Cervantes the sixteenth century Spanish writer said, ‘the worst reconciliation is better than the best divorce.’ Rwanda’s reconciliation, reconstruction and development efforts may be falling short but at least they are being undertaken. For every word that points out Rwanda's problems, there must be two that provide solutions.  

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