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Ratio Blog: Rwanda’s Different Futures Print E-mail
Monday, 19 July 2010
I am on the advisory panel for a scenario development exercise on Rwanda’s future and took part in a talk on the project in London. My brief was to speak about what interests me in the project, and what my indicative scenarios for Rwanda would look like. As Patrick Noack, one of the scenario directors, reminded us, a scenario is not a description of what you want to happen. It is also not a projection, i.e not merely an extension of the current circumstances into the future. It is an attempt to imagine different versions of a journey to the future.  

Rwanda is a country in transition, and this transition often references back to the incomprehensible grief and horror of 1994. In my short talk, and reflecting my background as a country risk analyst who usually writes for corporates, prospective and existing investors, I tried to disentangle some of the different strands of this transition: As a society, Rwanda is in a transition from rural to urban and digital, from francophone to anglophone and East African. The official line is that there are no Hutus and Tutsis, but each of these two groups are, of course, still very much structural elements in society, and each have their own subsets. Amongst the Tutsis, it is the Anglophone returnees who now hold much of the economic and political influence. Will these differences eventually fade away if denied long enough, or will their suppression strengthen them under the layer of official silence?  

The government is pushing intensely to transform the economy: from an agricultural, and often subsistence, economy to a diversified and services-based economy. Will size matter? Rwanda is a small country, and small makes it easier to implement ambitious development plans. Lagos, for example, has a larger population than the entire country, and is infinitely less manageable. But even though Rwanda has acquired a reputation as a strong reformer, the fact is that it remains a tiny market: with few consumers, and not a useful manufacturing base for anything but supplies to the local market as transport costs are still ridiculously high. Rwanda’s plans to transform itself into a hub for ICT, banking and other services are laudable, but pitch the country against Kenya with its far more established services industry, better human resources –and a larger economy around it that creates demand for services. Rwanda may be small and safe and neat, but so far, there are few genuine reasons to be there unless you run, say, gorilla safaris. Kenya, in contrast, is bigger and messier, of course, but also a business and transport hub.

Because the process of official transformation is so much driven from above, the speed at which Rwanda’s public sector is asked to change is mindboggling. Can this be sustained, or will people be left behind? There are often signs that mid and lower levels of state institutions struggle to keep up with the president’s ambitious vision.  

The living memory of a time when neighbours murdered neighbours across the country creates a huge dilemma for a political transition: To prevent this reoccurring, the country needs to be tightly run, but this cannot be a permanent state. When is the right point to ease up? When and how do you know that you no longer have to fear old murderous intentions being revived? When do you begin alienating others too deeply, and restrict the positive forces of democracy? How can Rwanda’s government negotiate a legal framework that can put a halt to false reporting in the media and murderous intent in its opponents without dismantling an opposition and media entirely?  

How will the influence of the regional neighbours play out? Rwanda has very actively engaged with the EAC after deliberately breaking away from its Francophone sphere of influence. When Kenya fought in early 2008, Rwanda and Uganda were leaning on Kenya to pull back from the brink – both countries depend on Kenya as a transport route for many of their supplies. Should anything happen in Rwanda, will the EAC have enough of a stake in its small neighbour to get involved, too? Will Uganda and Rwanda ever be able to agree on their not-so-secret competing economic interests in eastern DRC? Will Rwanda be able to regularise its business interests on DRC territory and turn it into a stable, peaceful and productive hinterland?  

And finally, what is Rwanda without Kagame? He effectively has become a rockstar amongst African presidents – a slippery slope, as the old ‘new leaders’ Museveni and Meles Zenawi have shown. People speak deferentially of ‘Number One’ being alert to the tiniest details, including picking up the phone to order a pothole fixed. He can walk into Starbucks and convince their senior management to do business in and with Rwanda. That’s great. And yet not so great if investors and social investors are in Rwanda because of him. If he gets hit by the proverbial bus, what is the plan B? What would happen to Rwanda, its government, and the crowds of adoring investors, philanthropists, and church leaders? Or if it’s not a bus: The military plays an enormously influential role in Rwanda, and the recent arrests and defections indicate that not everyone of the men with the guns is a happy camper. What does Rwanda look like if the military decide on a scenario that doesn’t involve Kagame?



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