Ndi Umunyarwanda: Rwanda decides to dig up the past

Saturday November 16 2013


By Frederick Golooba-Mutebi

A few months from now, Rwandans will be marking 20 years of efforts to rebuild and develop their country since the cataclysmic events of 1994. A great deal has happened internally since then. The country was widely expected to find a place among Africa’s failed states. It never did.

At the time, few knew or imagined that it possessed natural resources of any significance. Today those with interest in mining and mineral exploitation and trading have woken up or are in the course of waking up to the fact that while it may not be as richly endowed as some of its neighbours, mining is one of its major revenue earners whose significance seems destined to continue growing.

Although its human resources remain underdeveloped, and financial resources are in short supply, it has clawed its way onto the list of the world’s fastest growing economies and most consistent reformers across a range of domains.

And so while there is a time when the country was defined by the genocide that transformed it from a place few had heard about to one known for mass violence, today’s Rwanda is synonymous with a post-war recovery that some characterise as miraculous. But miracles have had nothing to do with it. Rather, driving the rebirth is a string of factors born of a determination to succeed.

They include innovations in public administration that have been inspired by traditional institutions hitherto long abandoned; the application of information and communications technology to the general pursuit of social change and prosperity; the much-acclaimed and generally successful anti-corruption drive; the unusually strict enforcement of laws, regulations and standards in all spheres of public life and the general emphasis on order and orderliness, which some outsiders claim is evidence that “something” about Rwanda is “not quite right.”

For those used to the sloppiness of some governments when it comes to implementing their own policies, Rwanda is a textbook study in how state capacity and effectiveness are not necessarily the products of human or financial resource abundance.

The purpose of highlighting these achievements, many of which are as much the outcome of the sheer doggedness of its government and people, as they are of the generous support the country has received from its development partners, is not to suggest that Rwanda is problem-free or that it has got on top of every challenge.

Rather, it is to demonstrate the extent to which it has dug itself out of the deep hole into which political turmoil had plunged it.

In terms of challenges, like any other poor, developing country, Rwanda still has many mountains to climb. One of its rare attributes, however, is the consistency with which its leadership insists on the right of Rwandans to define the country’s needs and to chart the course they believe will lead them to the new Rwanda of their aspirations.

The underlying independence of mind can be seen in the refusal to be stampeded into embracing or adopting new fangled or conventional ideas about how best to solve this or that problem, or even how to organise and lead their society. There are many examples of this, of which there are a number that really stand out.

They include the decision to use the neo-traditional Gacaca courts rather than the modern judiciary to try most of the genocide-related cases; the rejection of adversarial winner-takes-all multiparty politics; the retention of cost-sharing in health care provisioning, unlike other poor countries that deferred to donor opinion and abolished user-fees and yet remained saddled with dysfunctional health sectors.

The same independence of mind and the determination to set their own agendas can be credited with the latest homegrown initiative, the “Ndi Umunyarwanda” (I am Rwanda) initiative. In this initiative, Rwandans have taken the proverbial bull of their contested history by the horns.

Through it, they seek to address directly one of the aspects of their collective history that, like a boil waiting to be lanced, has been crying out for focused attention.

Shared past and future

The idea is that Rwandans examine aspects of their history and arrive at a shared analysis and harmonised understanding of where they as a people and their country have come from, how they got to where they are now, and how to travel together into the future in pursuit of aspirations they recognise as part of a collective project.

Twenty years after the genocide and 51 years after Independence, there are many issues that remain under the carpet, uncomfortable truths to be told, and forgiveness to be sought.

At a recent retreat, the Cabinet resolved to encourage their compatriots to face openly the challenges history has bequeathed them.

According to reports, President Paul Kagame pointed out what is at stake: “We can choose to be broken by our challenges and be held back by our past. But we also have a choice to stand up to the challenges we face and do things differently in a way people do not expect.”

Outsiders have long pushed for this discussion to be had. Once again, Rwandans have chosen when and how to do what.

Frederick Golooba-Mutebi is a Kampala- and Kigali-based researcher and writer on politics and public affairs. E-mail: [email protected]