Inside Rwanda’s economic miracle
For a tourist, especially one from Nigeria, Kigali’s squeaky clean street corners is the first thing that gets you purring and drawing parallels with some local governments in Lagos. It’s not just Kigali that’s clean. Large parts of northern Rwanda are also as clean.
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Rwanda’s 12 million population means it is a much smaller country compared to Nigeria. It’s less than half the size of Lagos and about the same population as Alimosho local government.
The Rwandan locals say littering the streets attracts punishments ranging from hefty fines to jail terms and that has largely kept unruly behaviour in check. Everyone partakes in a cleaning exercise once in a month and that includes even the President, Paul Kagame.
Adjudged one of the cleanest countries in Africa, and indeed the world, Rwanda’s streets look very different from the one littered with lifeless bodies in 1994.
The people refer to their country as a start-up state, one that is still picking the pieces and slowly rising from the ashes of a genocide that snatched the lives of some 800,000 people a quarter of a century ago.
In their eyes, Rwanda is only 25 years old.
“Rwanda was dead in 1994,” a tour guide at the Kigali Genocide Memorial, where 250,000 casualties of the genocide were buried, told BusinessDay.
But where did it all begin and how did Rwandans turn against one another in a brainless wave of killings that was ignored by the Western countries who had the ability to quell the war and the United Nations, which refused to intervene and pulled out its troops in the thick of it all.
To understand all of these, we need to go back to the very beginning when Belgian forces landed on Rwandan turf during the first World War.
“Rwandans were peaceful people who were satisfied to have a King who played to the role of a loving father to them,” said Deon, who works at the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre.
“The Belgians found it difficult to stamp their authority on the people because they only respected and listened to the King and no one else,” Deon, said.
Seeing that, the Belgians opted for divide and rule, a system that worked in other colonies.
The Belgians started to sow seeds of discord among the people and was promoting differences that never existed.
“It was all propaganda but they succeeded in making the Hutus resent the Tutsis and in 1935 introduced identity cards labelling each individual as either Tutsi, Hutu, Twa,” Deon said.
Before now the word “Tutsi” was only used to describe cattle herders while the Hutus were mainly farmers. The ‘Twas were in between.
So the distinction was not political neither was it cultural, it was simply economic. All three categories spoke the exact same language and had the same culture.
However, the Belgians oversaw self-imposed differences in the three.
The Tutsis, who the Belgians put in high offices, were portrayed as the privileged and wealthy few and the Hutus as the impoverished majority.
This sparked outrage among the Hutus who felt they were second class citizens to the Tutsis.
So when the Belgians handed power to the Hutus in 1962, it unearthed pent up Hutu resentment for Tutsis.
Direct elections had resulted in a representative government dominated by the majority Hutu under President Grégoire Kayibanda.
The Hutus in government openly declared their hatred for Tutsis and there was a widespread campaign urging the Hutus to treat the Tutsis with disdain and later to even kill them. The Tutsis were regarded as “cockroaches, filthy low-lives who deserved to be slaughtered and their women raped and abused,” according to Deon.
Unsettled ethnic and political tensions were worsened when Juvénal Habyarimana, who was also Hutu, seized power in 1973.
In 1990, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), a rebel group composed of 10,000 Tutsi refugees from previous decades of unrest, invaded the country, starting the Rwandan Civil War. The war ground on, worsening ethnic tensions, as the Hutu feared losing their gains.
The assassination of Habyarimana was the catalyst for the eruption of the genocide in 1994, in which hundreds of thousands of Tutsis and some moderate Hutus were killed including the prime minister Agathe Uwilingiyimana.
The Tutsi RPF conquered Rwanda, and thousands of Hutus who championed the genocide were imprisoned pending the establishment of the Gacaca courts.
Millions of Hutu fled as refugees, contributing to large refugee camps of Hutu in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of the Congo, where there were already refugees from other countries.
Since the brutal genocide which managed to elude the attention of the western world, Rwanda has made some remarkable progress.
A sign that the country has put its terrible past behind it is that it is now adjudged the safest in Africa, which is no small feat for a country where neighbours turned on one other in a split second during the genocide.
A mix of foreign aid and a booming local tourism sector has been used to rebuild the country.
Rwandan coffee began to gain importance after international taste tests pronounced it among the best in the world and the U.S. responded with a contribution of 8 million dollars.
Rwanda now earns some revenue from coffee and tea export, although must compete with larger coffee-producing countries like Brazil and African peers like Ethiopia and Kenya. Rwanda ranks 37th in the world in terms of coffee exports by revenue and earned $69 million in 2018 alone, according to data from the World Top Exports.
The main source of revenue, however, is tourism, mainly the Kigali Genocide memorial centre and mountain gorilla visitation.
The Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre provides a platform to understand the events leading up to the genocide.
A guide takes visitors through an emotional timeline of events that helped unravel what happened during the genocide.
During BusinessDay’s visit, a short video of survivors of the genocide whose fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters and other relatives were brutally killed was first played, before a tour of pictures and the remains of some of the victims of the genocide from children to adults who were mainly Tutsis and a few moderate Hutus.
The last words of a nine-year-old Tutsi Rwandan before she was macheted during the genocide were “The UNAMIR will come for us.” It never did. She was killed along with tens of thousands of children and over a million people in total. Some of their pictures hang on the walls of the Kigali Memorial Centre.
Today, no one in Rwanda is keen to identify as either Tutsi or Hutu, as deduced from interviews with scores of Rwandans.
The postwar government has placed high priority on infrastructure development from constant electricity to good roads, opening water taps in the most remote areas, providing free and compulsory education, and promulgating progressive environmental policies like one that bans the use of plastic bags.
Ethnicity has been formally outlawed in Rwanda, in the effort to promote a culture of healing and unity among the people.
One can stand trial for discussion of the different ethnic groups, some Rwandans told BusinessDay.
The country’s Vision 2020 development policy has the aim of achieving a service-based society by 2020, with a significant middle class.
On the evidence of what has been achieved so far, particularly in terms of infrastructure, it has made some to describe the country’s many exploits as an economic miracle.
The personality of President Kagame continues to split opinion but that hasn’t stopped Rwanda from rising from the ashes of a troubling past many thought would mark the end rather than the beginning of the country.