Archive | September, 2011

For Kagame and East Africa’s youth, the future matters

27 Sep

It is a well-known fact that if you want to know the attitude of an individual, institution or nation, study the language they use. Quite often a single word will define the thinking behind their actions or determine which direction they take.

And sometimes the single word may make all the difference – conceptually or in practical terms – between success and failure, progress and stagnation, greatness and insignificance, or whether one is forward or backward- looking.

Anyone who has been following President Paul Kagame’s pronouncements will have noticed that two words are increasingly becoming frequent in what he says. The words are the ‘future’ and ‘youth’. These are obviously pointers to President Kagame’s thinking about Rwanda’s direction.

Take for instance what he said on his recent trips abroad. During his state visit to France earlier this month, you could not miss the word future. It ran through all his pronouncements that you might say it was the theme of the visit – fashioning future relations with the French government and business community.

The idea of the future was present in the president’s lecture at the French Institute for International Relations. He staked out a role for African countries in reshaping the future of international relations.

In various media interviews during the state visit, President Kagame stressed that he did not intend to dwell on the past but rather focus on the future in rebuilding relations between Rwanda and France.

President Kagame’s focus on the future is not an accident or a matter of fashionable rhetoric. In terms of domestic policy, it is the result of a deliberate refusal to be held back by history. In foreign affairs, it is the product of the refusal to be held captive by past relations. As he said in Paris three weeks ago, and on many other occasions, people must move on.

The logic seems to be that you cannot allow yourself to be passive and let the past dictate your future. You can, and should, shape your own future. Rwanda has made the latter choice.

Any observer of the Rwandan scene must be aware of the country’s efforts to free itself from the clutches of the past and to move on. Whether it is in social relations among its people, or political and economic philosophy, the choice has been to break from an unsatisfactory past and set on a purposeful journey into the future.

Now, in other societies that have followed a normal progressive path, this is not what happens. The past is usually a platform from which to spring into the future. And it is not such a radical jump but really a normal progression that only becomes noticeable because of the cumulative transformation.

But Rwanda’s case is different. The past does not provide similar anchor and firm platform. Yes it is a springboard but of a different sort – one of rejection of an unsavoury past that propels one on a different trajectory. And the effect, rather than being cumulative becomes radical and all the more noticeable.

In a sense, therefore, Rwanda has had to fashion a future built on new foundations, not rooted in past achievements but in previous failures.

For President Kagame it seems the youth and the future are inextricably linked, which perhaps explains why he now hardly makes a major statement without reference to the youth.  It seems to me he has much faith in them as transformative agents.

Only last week in New York, in an address to the United Nations General Assembly on mediation and conflict resolution, he again staked out a special place for the youth. He said that in attempting to resolve conflicts, the world has not adequately used the potential of the youth. They are key innovators and thought leaders for today and tomorrow, he said. And because of their youth and because they carry less historical and political baggage that have often stood in the way of change, they have a bigger stake in the future of our world.

He said much the same thing last year when he addressed young people in Benin.  At that time he told them they have an innovative and entrepreneurial spirit and the ability to approach issues with a problem-solving mind. This particularly makes them best suited to shape the direction of Africa’s development agenda.

The youth of Africa, he told the Benin youth, are the pillars of present endeavours and drivers to the future.

President Kagame has put his money where his mouth is. His government has invested heavily in education and ICT. He has recognised the abilities of young people and appointed them to key positions in government. Indeed during the Mindspeak Africa event held in Kigali in August this year, he was asked to plead with his colleagues Heads of State to recognise the potential of young people in their countries.

Little wonder, then, that Inspire Africa, an NGO of young East African Entrepreneurs should recognise Paul Kagame as an icon of development in the region and an inspiration to them.


Ca-do attitude takes root in Rwanda

13 Sep

Anyone who has been to our national celebrations or other official functions will have noticed a number of things. First, they run like clockwork. Secondly, there are very few speeches, usually not more than two, and the longest 9by the President of the Republic) not longer than ten to fifteen minutes. Finally, until the chief guest arrives, there is almost non-stop singing.

This says a lot about the organisation of the events – tight, not tedious, attendee friendly, and so on.

But it would seem that these events would be incomplete without the morale raising songs belted out by the various Intore (agents of change) from across the country.

They sing about patriotism and development, work, nation building and responsibility, and a host of other subjects. Sometimes they sing with so much gusto and stamp hard on the ground with so much vigour that if you are in the national stadium, you fear that the collective foot-thumping will bring the structure down. It hasn’t so far, but it may be a good idea to carry out periodic structural checks.

Other times the singers have to be coaxed by the morale booster-in-chief to hum a few tunes, until eventually they break into full voice. You can’t blame for having to be cajoled before they burst into a full-hearted rendition of by-now popular songs. Most will have been up for many hours and all would have been in the stadium for a long time.

All the songs are full of meaning. They are a call to Rwandans to action. The most popular goes something like this: “We shall build our country/ we the children of Rwanda will build our country/ and turn it into paradise.” And so on. It is a very rousing song that even the less sensitive to any sort of rhythm cannot resist clapping or tapping their foot to it.

Still, some people simply sing along and never give much thought to the meaning.

But there is also evidence that the meaning of the song has actually been absorbed (internalised, some would say)

Last Friday, a group of Rwandans took the lyrics literally and raised money to turn Rwanda into paradise – not for the few as some cynics like to say – but for everyone. Businesspeople celebrating President Paul Kagame’s first anniversary of his inauguration for a second term reported they had raised 300 million Rwandan francs towards the girinka (one cow given to a vulnerable family) project.

The business community promised that they would do more. In a simple calculation carried out at the venue of the celebration, they reckoned that if every able Rwandan contributed as little as one thousand francs, they could raise enough money to make sure that no Rwandan ever goes hungry, has no shelter or lacks medical care.

They may have been thinking aloud, but the proposal is not outside the realm of possibility. And knowing Rwandans, that possibility will come sooner rather than later.

What the business community did last Friday follows similar citizen initiatives like the one dollar campaign that raised millions of francs for building houses for survivors of the genocide.

Now, the action of the business people is uniquely Rwandan. It would not happen in many other places. Supporting government efforts is sometimes regarded as near treason in some countries. Subversion of those efforts actually gets lauded as patriotic. Here self-help and helping others is increasingly getting ingrained in the culture.

What they did is carrying umuganda to another level. Incidentally umuganda is not only about sweeping streets and keeping the neighbourhood tidy, important as these are. It is more about work on community projects – be they schools, roads, houses for the vulnerable, water wells, and so on. Everyone brings their contribution, which is what umuganda means – adding your bundle to a collective contribution.

The business community last week – and others before them, and many more to come – were responding to another popular slogan among Intore. Intore does not simply lament about difficulties; s/he looks for solutions to whatever challenges they face. That is the spirit within which they raised so much money to provide a solution to the question of poverty.

So the slogan you are likely to hear at national celebrations is not for keeping awake slumbering officials. Nor is it for keeping the people entertained. Of course, it does these things, and more. But it also mobilises people to action for individual and collective good. As President Kagame noted when he met the Rwandan diaspora in Paris on Sunday, every citizen deserves a better life and can get it given a little support.

Seeking solutions rather than lamenting inability to do anything is also becoming part of the national culture. Increasingly a can-do attitude is taking root. And that can only be good for the country.

Who will miss Gaddafi?

6 Sep

Muammar Gaddafi is gone – well, nearly. He is still kicking and screaming, but gone he is. Will he be missed? Of course, he will, but only for a while before a similar fellow replaces him. You see the tragi-comedy of some of our politics needs a clown or villain (preferably a combination of both)  to keep the show on the road.

This is how he will be missed. For 42 years Gaddafi’s eccentricities have become a fixture on the world stage. They could be annoying, but also amusing, even profitable.

Take, for instance, his huge entourages and the all-female body guards that had become all too familiar on his foreign visits. They would sweep into town and literally take it over. For the duration they were in town, they became a useful distraction from the otherwise dull daily routine of survival. Occasionally his security fought with that of the host country to the amusement of the local people. It was always thought that he and his entourage left huge sums of money behind.

Speaking of which cash, Gaddafi is reputed to have liberally splashed so much of it around to buy influence or to cause mischief. Many will miss his largesse – some sorely.

Lovers of fashion will surely miss Gaddafi’s flamboyant and colourful robes and matching caps. They offered a break from the dark and grey business suits of Africa’s most powerful men. The only woman among them is, of course, distinguished by her equally colourful and elegant robes.

Admittedly some of Gaddafi’s brown robes were rather dull. They looked more like bark cloth and, when he wore them and met his visitors in his famous Bedouin tent, reminded one of a witchdoctor in a dark, grass-thatched hut mumbling some unintelligible things to patients seeking supernatural intervention. Bark cloth has a darker connection – in some traditions it is a burial cloth.

The robes are gone. The tent is gone. Fashion designers and makers of luxury products for the Gaddafi clan have lost some of their richest customers and must be counting their losses – before another clan comes up with its own design orders.

Among those who will miss him most must be African Chiefs. These are a relic from the past, kept conveniently by African leaders for a variety of selfish reasons and only brought out at national celebrations to lend colour and pomp to the event. Of late he had taken them under his wing as part of his design to be Africa’s supreme chief. They, too, must be mourning the largesse that will no longer be coming their way.

I dare say, even the West, which has pounded him out of Libya and may be out of existence all together, will miss hm. They love an adversary like Gaddafi.  He gives them the excuse to win allies and protégés, and test their weapons and military strategies in a real war situation. The show of force is also a reminder to some upstart rulers that only a few bulls still rule the kraal.

The rest of us who love braggadocio, bluster and extravagant speech will mourn their loss – until another master at hyperbole of all sorts comes along. He ranted against rats who have now routed him. In this he has been in illustrious company whom he might soon rejoin.

Remember one Saddam Hussein and his talk of the mother of all wars that never was? Or Idi Amin who claimed he feared no one but God and to prove his claim drove through the streets of Kampala at the height of Uganda’s war with Tanzania and then quietly slipped out of the capital?

The media will, above all else, feel Gaddafi’s loss deeply. They love someone who will give them a good story any time of day. And Gaddafi always obliged. The feeling of loss will not be for long, though. If they cannot find a quick replacement, the media will create one. You can count on that because there must always be a story to tell.

The free show from Libya is coming to an end. In Gaddafi’s place might come some serious, nondescript, boring nation builders with no entertainment value. But who cares whether the petro-dollars will be used to build Libya and not to fund insurgents, fuel subversion or serve one man’s whimsical needs if the result is only boring TV and commentators and experts frantically searching for fresh areas of “study”?

And will other African presidents have time to work for their people now that they do not have to watch their backs all the time? And what shall we do with all those spies we have trained to ensure the security of presidential backs? I am not certain they can be retooled to do other national service duties. I suppose for this we will need experts from (probably new) allies and friends.

Shall we miss the Brother Leader? Yes, of course, in different ways and for different reasons, and the world will be duller for his departure.