Learning from the Past: A Rwandan Example

December, 2011
By Ambika Vishwanath

After a two week journey through East Africa, my last stop, Kigali, was literally a breath of fresh air. Clean and green, with ordered traffic and smooth wide avenues, Kigali is a far cry from what one would imagine. 17 years after one of the worst genocides in history, the country and the people have come a long way, and Rwandans have much to feel satisfied about. During the course of visit to the country, I experienced a sense of positivity in the country that is only possible when people truly believe that there is hope in their future. From interactions with all aspects of the civil society, the government and everyday Rwandans, I realized what is most remarkable and commendable is that people have chosen to learn from their horrific past and take charge of their future.

Images of the genocide are not hidden in Kigali and swept away under the carpet; they are visible in the cordoned off areas of the city still waiting for repair, and in the solemn memorial centre built to honour the victims. With a strong will, the country has sought to impose justice, both through the international tribunal and through local courts known as gacacas. One of the first things the new government instituted, almost forcefully, was to abolish the use of any form of identification that would distinguish a person by his ethnicity or religion. Rwandans are determined to create a new and positive shared history, and in a world that is full of places trying to reconcile people who were on opposites sides of history, Rwanda is an important example.

The President, Paul Kagame, is a curious mix of progressive policies and dictatorial tendencies. He is openly opposed to dissent and has surrounded himself by members of his own ethnic group, people who acquiesce with his hard line policies. There are several opposing viewpoints to his government, yet one aspect remains constant is that the president and his government are not without political will to ensure strong development and a future that is far removed from the past. In the run up to the 2010 presidential elections, there were many cries of fraud, shadowy claims surrounding state orchestrated blasts and other uncomfortable questions were raised against the government. Such accusations are not uncommon in developing democracies, and without an independent media, there would be no one to raise such uncomfortable questions. 

Upon my return from Rwanda, one of the first news articles I chanced upon was the 2011 corruption index recently by Transparency International. They give Rwanda a 5, on a scale of 0-10, with 10 being the cleanest in terms of public sector corruption. Rwanda has improved in the last two years and is now number four in Africa. It is faring much better than other faster growing democracies and widely touted models for the South, such as South Africa or Turkey. I was not surprised to read this, as I found leaders, both serving and retired, were extremely accessible, and it is common for citizens to walk into the imposing parliamentary building and ask to meet their representatives. ‘Community Day’, a concept introduced in 2005 by President Kagame, asks all able bodied men and women to commit half a day each month to improving local infrastructure. People are free to choose their activity, and it is not uncommon to find a member of parliament working in his district planting trees or helping build a school.  Experience shows us that a country which allows and encourages debate and interaction between elected officials and their constituencies will soon be in a position to influence policy in its neighbourhood and beyond.

On an economic front, Rwanda's economy and tourism numbers grew rapidly during the 2000s, and the country's Human Development Index grew by 3.3%, the largest increase of any country. There are many who claim that their record is poor, and taken in comparison to more developed countries this is indeed true; but one only has to see the number of women in the workplace and the tremendous respect accorded to women to realize that they are headed in the right direction. In 2003, the constitution was rewritten so that 30 percent of parliamentary and cabinet seats are reserved for women. In September 2008, Rwanda's parliament became the first in the world where women hold 56 percent of the seats. A country that holds women in high regard has the potential to be a powerful voice in the changing world order. 

Admittedly the country is not without fault, and has a long way to go. Health care is all but non-existent in the country and HIV is still the large silent killer. Water infrastructure in the rural communities is poor, and irrigation practices are outdated and will certainly affect sustainability of resources in the future. But the government has recognized these are important needs for the future and is taking adequate measures – such as joining the East Africa Community and preparing plans for joint irrigation projects and infrastructure development. Though a new nation, Kigali has already grasped the value of collaborating with her neighbours, especially in regards to the question of shared resources. 

Known as the land of a thousand hills, and the Switzerland of Africa, Rwanda truly has the opportunity to embody all one admires of the tiny European nation. In many ways the country is headed in the right direction and has the potential to be a tremendous force and positive example in the future. It is now the responsibility of her people, and the international community that in rectifying past mistakes, they ensure that these efforts do not lose steam and are sustained in the long term.

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