Why the story of Rwanda’s economic success keeps being juxtaposed with human rights abuses
Last week I was in Kigali, Rwanda, after only two weeks of absence. Driving from the airport to the city, I found two new roundabouts near the new Convention Center complex. On my right was a 400 meters long boulevard leading to presidents’ office. My Rwandan friends told me that they too woke up one Saturday morning only to find this infrastructure in place – built over one night. It is an incredible feat these Rwandans have pulled off in their preparations to host the African Union Heads of State summit this July. Kampala Capital City Authority has spent the last six months trying to fix the roundabout at Fairway Hotel.
The next day I met Rwanda’s Defense minister, Gen. James Kabarebe, who explained this to me. He was surprised when the Rwanda Defense Forces Engineering Brigade went to him saying they could fix the roundabouts on Friday night and be done by Saturday morning so that there would be no significant disruption of traffic. He approved the work but was not sure they could pull it off. The next day, they had proved his skepticism wrong.
I listened to this story after I had read two depressing reports in international media about Rwanda, narrating tall and false tales of human rights abuses and autocracy by President Paul Kagame. I will not name the stories if only to deny their authors and publishers publicity to reach more people.
There was a common narrative in all of them that has come to define sections of the international (read Western) media coverage of Rwanda. Both stories began by extolling the economic gains Rwanda has made over the last 20 years but immediately decried the prevalence of fear, human rights abuses, and autocracy in the country.
The only way any journalist can have their story about Rwanda’s economic achievements published or broadcast in global media is to juxtapose it with out-of-context tales of human rights violations and autocracy. I write this with authority because I have many Western and African journalist friends who tell me these stories – that they had to include these accusations in order to sound “credible.” Indeed a top editor-friend of one of the leading newspapers in USA told me to include such criticism so that they can publish my opinion on Rwanda. I told him I was not willing to buy “credibility” by distorting the truths.
Over the years in the battle trenches of telling Rwanda’s incredible recovery from genocide and failed state to the most promising country in Africa, I have grown to reassess why this is so. It is easy to see economic achievement in Rwanda because it is visible to the eye. The temptation to always imagine human rights abuses and accusations of autocracy is an expression of deeply held biases about Africa being dysfunctional. So such economic success, these people imagine, can only be achieved by force, not consent.
More so, as any cognitive scientist will tell you, human beings are cognitive misers i.e. they prefer to do as little thinking as possible. Therefore, when confronted with a situation, the reaction is rarely to study and understand it in its specificity. Rather most people retreat to their accumulated knowledge and its accompanying prejudices and biases to make sense of it. Thus, coming to Rwanda and finding exceptionally successful economic reconstruction on a continent they believe to be dysfunctional, their reaction is not to investigate the processes behind such success. Rather they look back at similar societies that registered such rapid economic success – like Stalin’s Russia – and conclude that this is only possible because of autocracy.
I am therefore inclined to believe that many (certainly not all) journalists and editors who obsess about human rights abuses in Rwanda work from what Mahmoud Mamdani calls “history by analogy” as opposed to “history as process.” They ignore the specific social and political processes that have taken (and are still taking place) and impose their knowledge of Stalin’s Russia (or any other such experience) onto Rwanda’s reality. In the process, Rwanda’s history and circumstances are not just ignored but also wiped out of the analysis of the politics of the country.
Rwanda itself and those who believe in its story have not helped either. We have written glowing accounts of its statistical indicators – GPD growth figures, export earnings, decline in child, infant and maternal mortality, universal health insurance in a poor country, clean streets and neatly mowed lawns, ease of doing business reforms, zero tolerance of corruption, etc. But few (if any) have told the story of the political engineering that stands as the foundation on which all these statistical achievements have been realised and without which, Rwanda would not have worked.
True; the stories of women participation in politics have been told. But this is only a small part of the political engineering that Rwanda has undergone. The fundamental issue in Rwanda’s reconstruction has been the political reconciliation of its peoples. To achieve this, RPF and Kagame have had to build bridges and find accommodation with people who were bitter adversaries. This contradicts the narrative of Kagame being an intolerant despot always sending hit squads abroad to kill his political opponents.
Just to illustrate, the current commissioner general of prisons in Rwanda was the former commander of the FDLR, the successor group of the genocide forces; the chief of staff of the reserve army was the FDLR chief of military intelligence. The daughter of a woman serving life imprisonment for genocide is Kagame’s deputy chief of staff; the executive secretary to the First Lady’s Imbuto Foundation is a daughter of the president of Rwanda during the genocide; the father of Rwanda’s ICT minister is on life imprisonment for genocide.
There are hundreds of such inspirational stories of reconciliation and forgiveness in Rwanda that tower far above Nelson Mandela’s initiatives in South Africa. I have sat with Rwandans of all walks of life and been driven to tears of joy by listening to the stories of forgiveness and reconciliation. Rwandans do this so as to build their country, not to win a Nobel Peace Prize. So they have done nothing to trumpet these stories to the rest of the world in spite of allegations that Kagame has a serious PR machine. He has none.
This is why this story of the human spirit’s ability to triumph over fear and hate and cultivate love and understanding is always missing in stories of Rwanda’s ability to construct two roundabouts in one night.