Reminiscences from the Remarkable Rwanda, By Uche Igwe
Coming back from Kigali, I have experienced once again what visionary leadership can do to a country regardless of its history. It is easier to locate what the problem with Nigeria is. There can be a Kigali in practically every state in this country. No one should tell me about any curse except the ones we inflicted on ourselves, unwittingly.
My trip to Kigali, Rwanda for the Africa Innovation Summit was almost shelved for an important assignment in Abuja, but I was further persuaded to attend upon learning that I could get a direct flight from Abuja to Kigali on the new RwandAir. The whole idea that one would connect an African capital by first flying to Europe and back is one that I consider both expensive and unbearable. RwandAir flight was not just a relief; it made it possible for me to attend to both assignments located thousands of miles apart.
The journey out of Abuja was smooth. It lasted for about three hours or so. About twenty-five minutes to our landing in Kigali, I was woken up by a beautiful voice which turned out to be that of the female captain. She announced our imminent descent into Kigali international airport. Unlike my last transit through Kigali, which was marked with heavy and disruptive rainfall, this time, her announcing pleasant weather conditions at our destination was welcoming. It was about 9.30 p.m. when I peeped through the window to behold a well-lit city, with an undulating geography of hills, ridges and valleys.
As my feet touched the soil of Rwanda, I conjured up memories of the turbulent history of that country: The ethnic tensions that culminated in the Rwandan genocide in the early nineties. I remember the pictures and the global outrage at the summary massacre of neighbours by neighbours, allegedly masterminded by a government led by the majority Hutu ethnic group against the minority Tutsis. Historical documents suggest that the genocide was sparked off after the alleged assassination of former President Juvenal Habyyarimana on April 6, 1994.
Armed with such a violent and traumatic mental picture and expecting less thereof from the country, I was pleasantly surprised with what Rwanda has evolved into. The Kigali I walked into is a very organised and clean city – probably one of the cleanest in Africa, in my opinion. The streets are well laid out and the roads well maintained. Development here has obviously happened at an impressively speedy pace. Both motor cyclists and passengers are mandated by government policy to wear helmets and there is compliance by all. The city is said to be secure and I saw that night life was bubbling unhindered. There are many five-star hotels in the city and tourists were seen walking around freely and leisurely too.
One could hardly notice that the country was in the recent past engulfed in war. On interacting with the people, one of the most infectious things that struck me is their addiction to nationalism. Any citizen you meet politely informs you that he or she is a Rwandan. They do not consider themselves first as either Tutsis or Hutus – and will not tell you so – although the differences between the two remain apparent, at least physically. For them, asking questions about their ethnic origin is like trying to identify whether someone belonged to the oppressor or the oppressed.
Even with all his flaws, both critics and admirers of President Kagame agree that he is a transformational leader who has left indelible footprints across the country. The pieces of evidence of his visionary leadership are visible on the streets of Kigali for all to see. He was quoted as saying that he will make Rwanda, the ‘Singapore of Africa’…
Through several policy interventions under the Vision 2020 programme, the economy of Rwanda is fast improving from one impoverished by war to that of an emerging middle-income country. Human Development indices have improved commendably. With a population of 11.92 million people, the country has an average life expectancy of 66.6 years in 2018. The prevalence of HIV is as low as 3.1 per cent – one of the lowest in East and Southern Africa, while the literacy rate hovers around 73.2 percent. These results are apparently linked to the commitment of President Paul Kagame, who took over power and ended the genocide in 1994.
The president remains very popular in the country as the Father of the New Rwanda and the key force behind the stability and reforms experienced across several sectors in the country. He was formerly elected into office in 2000 and has been in power since then. After completing his two 7-year terms in office as allowed by the Constitution, he allegedly masterminded an amendment that provided him an opportunity for a third term in office.
Many human rights organisations have continued to criticise Mr. Kagame’s regime of stifling civil society and muscling opposition, especially after he was re-elected for a third term by curiously winning 98.79 percent of the total votes cast in the presidential election. That election was alleged to have been tainted with repression and lack of credible competition. Notably, one of the aspirants to the presidential elections, Ms. Diane Rwigara was harassed, detained, barred from the contest and later charged with forgery and inciting insurrection.
Even with all his flaws, both critics and admirers of President Kagame agree that he is a transformational leader who has left indelible footprints across the country. The pieces of evidence of his visionary leadership are visible on the streets of Kigali for all to see. He was quoted as saying that he will make Rwanda, the ‘Singapore of Africa’ and it is obvious that he is on course. The huge turnout of young Rwandans to the Africa Innovation Summit further demonstrated the willingness of the youth population to devote their energy to research and digital solutions.
Back in Nigeria, the situation is completely different in many regards. Most significantly our experiment at forging a nation seems to be failing every day. Leaders speak and act as if some parts of this country do not belong to the nation, elevating delusions of ethnic superiority to state policy. Nationalism remains under threat as many citizens of Nigeria will prefer to be Igbo, Yoruba, Hausa, Ijaw, Tiv, Idoma and other before ever being Nigerian. We wax stronger in amplifying our differences and allowing our past to dictate our present and becloud our future. Like Rwanda, we have a shared history of war; Nigeria fought a civil war where more than three million people died to remain together, yet more than forty-eight years after the war ended, we remain more divided than we were before that war. The same reasons why we went to war still exist and are rather amplified with impunity. Our political elite conduct themselves as if they prefer to benefit from every of our failed attempt at national cohesion.
Even as we continue to debate on our participation in the Africa Continental Free Trade Area agreement (AfCFTA), countries like Rwanda are already taking advantage of the opportunities by feeding on the vast Nigerian market. We revel in unbridled consumerism and that is why both the West and China see us a dumping ground of sub-standard products.
Although we take pride in describing ourselves as the giant of Africa, a country like Rwanda has dwarfed us by floating a functional national carrier. With a modest fleet of just ten aircrafts, RwandAir took off in 2016 and now helps travellers within the continent connect with ease. Even as we continue to debate on our participation in the Africa Continental Free Trade Area agreement (AfCFTA), countries like Rwanda are already taking advantage of the opportunities by feeding on the vast Nigerian market. We revel in unbridled consumerism and that is why both the West and China see us a dumping ground of sub-standard products. Our own national carrier, the defunct Nigerian Airways, is a legacy of mismanagement and the hope of its revival, we continue to shamelessly defer.
Coming back from Kigali, I have experienced once again what visionary leadership can do to a country regardless of its history. It is easier to locate what the problem with Nigeria is. There can be a Kigali in practically every state in this country. No one should tell me about any curse except the ones we inflicted on ourselves, unwittingly. I recommend an excursion for Nigerian leaders (both current and former) to Rwanda so that they can at least learn about how to build a nation. Rwanda does not produce oil yet they have other natural endowments like gold, cassiterite, coltan and others, whose proceeds are managed fairly. They have mobilised all their resources towards national growth.
For me, unless and until we decide to genuinely get together as Nigerians to build a nation of equity and fairness, every other effort we make – no matter how well intentioned – will continue to be disrupted. The well-known foundations of nepotism, ethnicity and bigotry upon which the current contraption and geographical expression called Nigeria was dubiously constructed will continue to prevail. Someday, we will all face the consequences. Everyone without exception. Sooner than later.
Rwanda and other countries in Africa who have the courage to make the right decisions will continue to benefit from our myriads of mistakes.
Uche Igwe is a doctoral researcher at the department of Politics, University of Sussex, Brighton. He can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org.