Al Jazeera Blogs


Africa

The national enigma that is Rwanda

It feels odd for a country to be so strictly ruled, but how else could Rwanda shake off its historical baggage?
Last modified: 1 Jul 2012 23:54

Rwanda is an enigma. It looks and feels more like Switzerland than Africa. There is a near-obsessive adherence to the rules that feels almost oppressive compared with the rest of the continent.

Motorbike taxi drivers all wear helmets; drivers buckle up and nobody jumps a red light. Corruption is almost unheard of, pot-holes get fixed, and, once a month, everybody joins the national clean-up day to remove rubbish, cut grass and fix fences.

On other days, it can feel like a well-organised military camp, with its painted rocks, regular armed patrols and soldiers lining the streets every day from 3pm until 6am.

Yet, perhaps the taxi driver I spoke to on a trip across town put his finger on it when he said: "Rwanda isn't a country. It's an enterprise."

He didn't mean that this is a place set up for the enrichment of its board of directors. Rather, he meant that it is run not so much as a democracy than a corporation, with a tough-minded CEO obsessed with efficiencies and systems designed to squeeze the best possible product out of the company.

That's all very well when you are trying to make widgets and maximize profits, but it does start to feel a bit odd in a country.

And that's where President Paul Kagame's Rwanda bumps up against Western ideas of democracy and freedom.

But it is "Kagame's Rwanda" – a country that he, more than any other individual, has shaped from the ashes of the 1994 genocide; a moment in the nation’s history that became "Year Zero".

Violent cycle

July 1 is Rwanda’s Independence Day. On that day in 1962, it formally won independence from its colonial master Belgium. But, by historical fate, July 4 is now celebrated as "Liberation Day", marking the moment in 1994, when Kagame led his troops from the Rwandan Patriotic Front into Kigali to end 100 days of genocide.

The mass murder of ethnic Tutsis by extremist Hutus was only the latest and bloodiest round of violence in a cycle of killings that stretched back over most of the previous 30 years, so it was hard to imagine how the country could escape an endless cycle of ethnic bloodshed.

Kagame broke that cycle by ruthlessly making and enforcing laws prohibiting "genocide denialism", "divisionism" (between the tribes), and "endangering public security".

But he also went further, believing that they needed to instill military discipline throughout society, and a culture of obeying even the smallest rules to maintain social order.

Human rights groups, largely from the West, have accused Kagame of using those laws as tools to imprison political opponents, close down independent media and drive critics out of the country.

'Old order'

In his Independence Day speech, he lashed back at those allegations. Standing before a stadium packed with 30,000 Rwandans, and several thousand more troops at attention on the field, the president cast his critics as practising a form of neo-colonialism.

"For the past century, including the last 50 years of independence, Africa lost immense opportunities largely due to unbalanced relationships within the global community that were often predatory and even abusive in nature," he said.

"Today, new ways of perpetuating the old order have emerged in a subtle manner, often disguised as the defense of human rights, free speech and international justice."

And so the national enigma: a country that is easily the best-run, least-corrupt and most progressive on the African continent, run by a man who sees human rights defenders as trying to reassert the old patronising, finger-wagging and, frankly, racist relationships of the past.

That view is difficult to accept. It is just as hard to imagine, however, any other way that Rwanda could have shaken off its historical baggage so effectively, and so fast.