A miracle. This is the most recurrent adjective in describing the ascension of Rwanda as one of the fastest growing economies in the world and what is coming to be a promise of a transformation in the African Continent.
If you look back to 20 years ago, Rwanda had not a single chance to possibly change its destiny and becoming a small economic and cultural powerhouse. On the contrary, it had all the odds stacked against. Back then it was a scared, wounded nation still carrying a post-traumatic stress disorder after surviving one of the most horrific genocides of recent times. A small, landlocked country with a decimated population, a fragile economy, no access to the sea and vulnerable to the whims of its bigger and unstable neighbours. Even the new leadership came off from one of the Tutsi militia that fought hard the rebellion and promised to become nothing more than a new authoritarian succession of power.
In fact, the leader of the RPF — Rwandan Patriotic Front, Paul Kagame, successfully guided a counter-attack during the apical stages of the civil war posing the end to the conflict and establishing the preparation of peace talks among the rivaling factions. His military success paved theway to the Presidency, a rule that he held for almost two decades continuatively.
But despite the history, Rwanda has been capable in the last year to bounce back completely from its lowest point and now heading on the path of becoming the economic engine of the Great Lakes Region of Africa.
The Singapore of Africa
Is not a secret that Kagame has been always inspired by the success of Singapore in South-East Asia to shape a similar vision of progress at home too. It may stem from the extreme cleanliness of the streets, as Singapore banned chewing-gum on the streets, similarly Rwanda’s capital Kigali is praised for the extreme order of its roads and the banning of any polluting elements, like zero-tolerance for plastic bags and the famous Umuganda, or days dedicated to collective urban cleaning.
This is only the most striking appearence, but under the surface it seems that Rwanda has watched closely Lee Kuan Yew’s success story and is still learning fast the rules to attract foreign investors and profits to the country.
First it focused on establish security in the region. One the first efforts has been a wide crackdown on crimes and corruption. Currently Kigali is widely considered the safest city in Africa and the reputation has won the interest of a dynamic and fast-growing population of new residents and young entrepreneurs from all the continents.
Rwanda seems to offer a promising tale on how to tackle the corruption that otherwise appears endemic in the region, by jumping to the 49th position, accordingly to the reports of Transparency Index. Not enough, as Kagame in an interview for TRT openly admitted, but a far cry from the records of any other African country.
A result that shows how corruption is not culturally endemic, but can be tackled and solved if there’s the will to do so.
“This is a campaign that can be won. Tolerating corruption is a choice. Is not inevitable and is within our part to do so” — Paul Kagame
The second step in Rwanda’s economic development has been focused on the easiness of doing business and thus the attractiveness for big players to invest in the country. A decade ago, Rwanda was seen as the 139th easiest place in the world to do business. Today, it is ranked 28th, placing it above countries such as Netherlands and Belgium and boosting a roaring economy that grows by 7% or more per year.
The city on thousand hills has become a business hub in Eastern Africa. Is home of a vibrant creative community of local artists, designers and exquisitely African fashion firms. Cafes and stores pop up every new month and there’s the vibrant atmosphere of a hipsie western city.
All these elements have been functional in attracting the interest of big international companies and chaebol, such as Korean KT Corporation, in heavily investing in the country.
The multimillion dollar Convention Centre in Kigali, designed to offer a place for international conferences and businesses, has become the new symbol of the city to the world and a testimony of the newly found economic prosperity and confidence of the small nation.
Local resources and manifacture
Another key element for the economic boom was the focus on infrustructures that made possible to transform the geographical liability of Rwanda’s position, right at the centre of Africa into an asset. Is exactly that strategic position that made possible the small success of Rwandair, the State-owned airline, into a reliable line to connect to any corner of the continent and beyond, challenging the air supremacy of the competitor colosso Ethiopian Airlines.
Rich on minerals and raw materials, Rwanda has been able to capitalize on its natural resources by building up a native manifacture industry, maybe best symbolized by Mara. The first phone brand 100% made in Africa.
Instead of relying on Chinese manifacturers, Rwanda incentivized the local know-how to develop and tranform the precious coltan, of which is rich, into high-tech commodities and possibly a new flourishing industry in Africa.
The Mara Z and X models are looking to be a middle-ground between the high-end Samsung models and the cheapest ones, offering good quality within an affordable range. A marketing nieche particularly important in targeting the rising African middle-class that is soon going to explode into a whole future economy.
But not all that glitters is gold (I don’t know, is a common idiomatic phrase in Italy).
Despite the façade of progress and development, many points out the other side of the story and the price that the average population has to pay for such advancements. Although Paul Kagame is a widely popular and successful leader in its country, his decades-long Presidency has been marked by an authocratic stance and strong repression of any form of dissidence. If all the economic metrics paint a favourable light of the country, Reporters without Borders shows a grim picture of a country hard on repression and comparable to China and Russia in terms of personal liberties, more than any other Western democracy.
I personally remember the stories reported by a friend while he was living and working for a UN program in Rwanda. He had to keep attention of what he was saying while talking and writing on the phone to friends. They invented some funny codenames so every time they referred to Paul Kagame in their conversations, they changed his name with “Adam Sandler” . Hilarious as it sounds, this also gives a bit of a context around the limits of the freedoms that people enjoy in the country, wheter if foreign expats or locals.
Many political dissidents have been imprisoned or forced to leave the country, while some have been even threatened of assassination despite the exile in other countries, as international intelligences have reported.
There are many that ask if renouncing to personal freedom is a price to pay for economic development. Rwanda pose again the dilemma of the efficacy of authoritarian rule in opposition to the western notion of democracy in advancing the prosperity of a country and wealth of its people.
Beyond the glossy image of economic reports and touristic destinations, another risky price Rwanda had to pay to establish security in the region has been the subsidization of ethnic conflicts and chronic instability of nearby DR Congo that allowed the small country to emerge as hegemone in the region, but also fueled two gory conflicts in recent times that have never been solved.
There seems to be talks and progress since the last change of leadership in DRC, but a final peace seems still to be far away to reach.
Ethnic conflicts and repression have been bottled up in Rwanda for two decades. The traditional Tutsi and Hutu division that gave way to the civil war has been replaced to a new notion of unity. Is a remarcable progress from the seemingly irreparable hate between the ruling factions in the country, but many are worried if the repression now enforced by Kagame could one day explode into a new sanguinous rivalry once he’s going to leaves office.
So far Rwanda has been able to show the world that a different way in Africa is possible and many other countries in Africa are closely looking at its example.
The project of a new African Renaissance was called Vision 2020 and ecompassed an ambitious plan to transform the small country into a prosperous economic power. It’s been two decades since then and, altough late on schedule, Rwanda seems on the right path of achieving its goals.
Only the future will tell if the country will be capable of survive Kagame’s legacy and amend its current contradictions. But Kigali vibrant scene remains a promising sign for the next African century.