Archive | February, 2012

Mining: the forgotten sector of Rwanda’s economy

27 Feb

So we have gold – and probably plenty of it! That’s the news The New Times broke in its edition of 27th February. There are gold deposits in parts of western and northern Rwanda. Their existence is not in doubt. That has been known for a while. What is not exactly certain are the quantities involved. That’s what several companies are doing – prospecting in the areas to ascertain the exact amount of gold there.

In many ways this is good news.

First, the picture of a resource-poor, tiny country that has often been portrayed is not entirely correct. We have minerals and probably other natural resources under our thousand hills after all.

The news about the gold, which citizens have always mined, albeit using unsophisticated methods, is an addition to other well-known minerals that have been mined in this country for a long time. I have heard about casseterite and wolfram mining in Rwanda all my life. It was done long before I was born, and is still being done now. In recent years, coltan, that has also always been here, has gained prominence with the revolution in the communications industry.

These minerals are a significant part of the economy. Only last year, it is reported, earnings from export of minerals topped US $158.8 million, making the sector second in foreign earnings to tourism.

Clearly, there are considerable quantities of minerals in this country. And there may be other natural resources we do not know about, yet. We already know about methane gas in Lake Kivu. What other gases or resources lie beneath our many lakes and plains? Abundant deposits of peat sit on the surface of marshes and valleys. What else may stretch deeper below the surface?

We will know in good time. For the moment, though, we can only speculate and hope that these beautiful hills harbour more than their steep cones, beautiful terraces and the valleys that meander between them. Which is why the repeated reminder that we do not have much in the way of natural resources and should therefore do everything to develop the only resource we are sure of – the human sort – remains valid.

And even if it wasn’t, the rationale behind it is still compelling. We still need to invest in human capital to work the natural resource and make it profitable. We do not have to look far to see how abundance of natural wealth does not necessarily translate into greater national wealth. The people remain dirt poor in spite of the untold riches in their soil. To escape from the biting poverty, some of them have gone to Europe and America where they offer themselves for hire as hoodlums to harass citizens of other countries (like Rwanda) who are getting themselves out of poverty through sheer grit and hard work.

In the past, mineral exports did not represent a sizeable portion of the nation’s GDP, perhaps due to underreporting by individuals and groups that had vested interests in keeping the sector in the shadows. Or perhaps due to inefficiency.

For whatever reason the mining sector was kept out of the limelight, that did not wipe away the presence of minerals in commercially exploitable quantities.

So, why did mining in Rwanda remain forgotten for a long time despite its economic significance?

That’s the second reason the news about gold deposits is good.

The reason is the Democratic Republic of Congo. Rwanda’s mining industry has been overshadowed by that of its giant western neighbour. In the popular imagination, the DRC is reputed to have minerals strewn along village paths, or falling from the sky with the generous rains, or washed on river banks for anyone to pick. Every rock is supposed to harbour some gem or other. They have so much that the little country to the east was left with nothing, and a magical line was drawn between the two countries – with minerals to the west and none to the east.

And so if any minerals are found in Rwanda, they can only have been stolen from the DRC. There can be no other explanation even when the evidence is there before the eyes.

There is, of course, a more sinister motive behind wilful blindness. There are some people for whom the progress that Rwandans have made without being beholden to them is an unbearable and unacceptable reality. They will do anything to deny it is the work of Rwandans using their own resources and effort. But because they cannot erase the fact, they seek to dismiss it by ascribing the progress to theft of Congolese wealth.

Psychologists call this phenomenon, transfer of guilt. Mineral-rich DRC has been plundered and impoverished by foreign interests, from King Leopold of Belgium to his latter-day successors from Europe and America – governments, corporations, NGOs, churches – the lot. To ease their collective conscience, they project and transfer their guilt to others, especially those they think are little, powerless countries, like Rwanda.

Now, with discoveries of more mineral deposits and more open reporting of mining activities in Rwanda, it will increasingly be difficult to find a convenient carrier of their guilt. Like the popular Swahili Christian hymn says, siku za mwisho kila mtu atabeba mzigo wake mwenyewe (loosely translated as; on judgement day, everyone will carry their own burden)

Of citizens’ charter, corruption and change of attitudes

21 Feb

Last week saw the launch of a citizens’ charter in Kigali, ostensibly to make it easier for Rwandans to ask for and get services without a hassle. The minister of public service and labour said at the launch that when people know what services they expect and who should give it to them, and what their rights are, they will be able to demand a better deal.

The charter is, of course, a good thing in so far as it is one of those things that should make it impossible for service providers to plead ignorance. It comes to reinforce other measures already in place to check corruption, abuse of office and general disregard of responsibility.

Mr Mulekezi is also right about rights and demands and delivery of services based on them.

But will the charter and a statement of the obvious by the minister improve service delivery? Probably marginally.

The issue is not whether citizens know their rights and how and where to get services. They know all that and they actually press for them. But they don’t always get them. That’s the question.

You only have to be at some of President Paul Kagame’s visits upcountry and listen to the questions the people ask to know where the problem is.

In almost every case, it is the local leaders, or different organs of the state, or even the private sector that are supposed to serve the people that fail them. And when the president asks why such and such has not been done and gets unclear mumbling from those who should have addressed the citizens’ concerns in the first place, you will appreciate the exasperation he sometimes feels.

You cannot convince anyone that these leaders do not know what their responsibilities are. Nor can you be persuaded by pleas of limited resources because some of the questions do not require such means. All that is often needed is the willingness to listen and to act – decisively and expeditiously. Instead people are kept on the road for a long time in the hope that they will get tired and give up. And some of them do.

So the question is not to know whether it is nobler to render services to those that they are due. Nor is the inaction a result of a crisis of conscience that makes those responsible to act one way or the other. It is something else which the charter should be addressing.

Returning to President Kagame’s question and answer sessions with the people – these are the most popular aspects of his visits (at least from the point of view of ordinary people). Most of those who complain about diverse issues are ordinary, often poor, people who have been denied redress because of their station, not because they don’t know what their due is. They are usually ignored because the leaders expect nothing from them in return. The reasoning seems to be: I cannot serve someone whom I don’t expect to scratch my back at some point. The rich and powerful, those who wield some amount of influence of some sort, or the well-connected get what they ask for at the snap of a finger- presumably because they have back-scratching means.

This is where the question is – an attitude to public service that is selective about who should or shouldn’t get a service. And if any charter or anything else is to be useful, it should address this issue.

Rwanda’s fight against corruption is well-known for its tough, uncompromising stance. Indeed nearly everyone agrees that corruption has all but disappeared from the highest levels of government. Equally, they point out that some form of it remains at lower levels. Denial, delay or sale of services is such cases.

The local chapter of Transparency International and the Ombudsman have persistently reported that corruption still exists at the lower levels of government, especially local government.

Interestingly, the day the citizens’ charter was launched, newspapers reported the arrest of a local leader for allegedly confiscating the property of people who had not paid their contribution to the health insurance fund. Whether this was a case of overzealousness or abuse of office, it remains unacceptable. Most of us can remember the overenthusiastic enforcement of the drive to eradicate nyakatsi (grass-thatched houses) and the pain and outcry it caused. No one wants a repeat performance.

Now, this should not mean that things are very ad at the local level. There are very many good things happening there. They explain the reason Rwanda’s economy has been growing steadily for well over a decade, why we are now self-sufficient in food production, and why health and education have improved.

We have set the standard against corruption so high and performed so well that anything short of that looks enormous and unacceptable. We have got so used to success that any slip-up appears like mortal sin. And that’s the way it should be. If the citizens’ charter helps us maintain that high standard, well and good. In the meantime, however, some attitudes will have to change.

Why there are no praise songs in Rwanda: there are no Tsars

14 Feb

There are many things Rwandans have achieved for which they should be singing their own praises. But they don’t. There is no fuss, no celebration. In fact, you notice a deliberate effort to play down any sort of success. It is business as usual as if the spectacular achievements made in the last few years are an everyday occurrence.

And there is a long list of them. On the economic front, the country has been posting annual growth figures averaging 8% for a decade. It has maintained single digit inflation rate when the rest of the East African region records double digits – in some cases nearly four times that in Rwanda. Various reports continue to point to Rwanda as one of the top countries in which it is easy to do business and the best investment destination in Africa.

In the less easy to measure justice and reconciliation area, there has been equally remarkable progress. Thousands of cases that would have taken conventional courts several centuries to clear have been disposed of by a uniquely Rwandan justice system. And in the short space of ten years they have achieved what Christians have been preaching for two thousand years with limited success – forgiveness, reconciliation and tolerance.

Of course, there have been dissatisfied people as there are in any judicial system anywhere in the world. Humankind is yet to invent a justice system that satisfies all parties. The only measure so far about how good the system is lies in the degree of fairness of the system.

After so many years of denying that this country has a fair justice system, many countries are now changing their attitude. They now believe that conditions for fair trial exist and are repatriating Rwandans suspected of genocide and other crimes against humanity for trial.

In the social sector, more children have access to education and stay in school much longer. The health of Rwandans has improved tremendously.

On gender issues and attendant socio-economic impact, the country is way up there.

The list goes on.

Overall, Rwandans’ lives have improved. They know it. Yet no one is singing praises about it – not even when there is indisputable evidence as there was last week.

A week ago today, the government published the results of the Household Living Conditions and Demographic and Health surveys that confirmed that livelihoods had indeed improved. Both surveys revealed that in many cases Rwandans had surpassed their own projections in reducing poverty and raising living standards. Impressive was the word on everyone’s lips. In fact Mr Yusuf Murangwa, the Director General of the National Institute of Rwanda, used the word more than five times in a thirty-minute presentation of the reports.

Now, that was unusual because Rwandan officials are not in the habit of using such laudatory words. Statisticians rarely use non-measurable expressions. That it happened in this case can only mean that the figures released in the reports were such that they wowed even the usually unflappable numbers people.

And still, no one is singing about it, or claiming credit for the miracle.

Such modesty is not common in most parts of the world. Indeed many are baffled that no one comes forward to claim the prize for the miracle. They can’t understand why the people of this country don’t trumpet their extra-ordinary achievements from the country’s thousand hilltops.

And it is not because they are superstitious that praising a good thing might attract evil and turn all the good work to nought. The people behind the success don’t know much about superstition. They are more familiar with figures and projections based on them, plans and timelines, various measurement instruments and the latest technology. Not for them the hazy world of spirits, good or evil.

This is where Rwanda is different – and perhaps the reason for success. There are no Tsars (or Tsarinas) who rule over some little empires in Rwanda. Of course, there are real people behind the achievements. But what we see is the collective effort of politicians and technocrats at every level, and above all, ordinary citizens. Everyone plays their allotted role. Each is a cog in the wheel of progress and all drive that wheel.

Rwandans also seem to have taken to heart the teaching about humility. To them all achievements are merely work in progress. Songs will only be composed when the country finally moves into higher income levels, when they can say with satisfaction” mission accomplished” But I suspect even then they will not be really satisfied and will be pushing for more.

This is the Rwandan way outsiders don’t understand. It is a society of all for all. No one stands taller than others. None is indispensable. Everyone matters.

This is why so-called experts and commentators on Africa get it wrong when they start talking about cracks in the military or ruling party when they hear that a general has been arrested or a top politician sacked. They tend to interpret these actions by applying the familiar experience in other places where such people are untouchable, where they hold the country to ransom because they have appropriated certain functions and powers of the state. It is different here.

Rwanda is an enterprise where citizens have equal shareholding. It is not controlled by a few majority shareholders.  That’s why there are no individual claims to the miracle that the country is, and why there are no praise songs to such individuals, or any praise songs at all. The push for greater profits for the enterprise continues

The importance of not being earnest

7 Feb

Africans may lack many things, but they have others in plenty – actually, in excess. There are no half measures. We go to extremes. Which may not be a bad thing, because with us, you know where you stand.

Take the case of expressing grief, for instance. People will go to any length to show how grieved they are – by a death, robbery or other injustice. They will wail loudly, running along village paths or streets to let everyone know that they are grieved and if possible share in their grief. They will tear their clothes and shout that they will miss the generosity of the deceased person in the event of a death.

It is the same with joy. Ululations will break out loud and long and hang in the air for everyone to hear and share in the cause for so much excitement.

The scene at an African airport or conference is very much the same. Noise and bustle, pushing and shoving – some of it not so gentle – greet you. Apparently, one would not be African enough if they are not boisterous.

This is, of course, a generalisation, and probably true of other races. But it holds true in many circumstances.

The capacity for doing things in excess is not limited to ordinary people – who, in any case, are uninhibited by studied behaviour. At least they express their real feelings.

It also extends to some of our very important people – you know, the top politicians, diplomats and the lot. The difference is that their excesses are carefully studied and cultivated in order to measure to the assumed importance of the individual.

If you wanted to be blunt – like most ordinary people are – you would say they are phoney.

Attend any continental conference and you will get what I mean. Some of our important people will get up to speak and, for some reason, find it difficult to stop. They make long speeches about things they probably don’t understand or care much about in a bored, monotonous tone and expect people to listen and pay attention.

People are literally held hostage by an uninspiring monologue from a dull, self-important person. You see, if he can make you listen for as long as likes – never mind about whether you actually listen – that is proof of his power and importance.

But that is part of the self-delusion of our very important people. They can make their long speeches and keep you n the conference hall longer than is necessary, but they cannot ensure that you are listening. No wonder TV cameras catch many people in various stages of sleep at such conferences.

I have always wondered why speeches that are never remembered are ever made, except perhaps to prove that the speaker is no clay statue.

All these, and plenty more were happening this week at the African Union summit in Addis Ababa.

Sometimes, this amazing capacity for exaggeration can be ridiculous. Imagine the African Union claiming it played a significant role in stabilising the continent, especially in North Africa and Ivory Coast.

Now, you and I know better. In both these places, the AU was ignored as if it did not exist. The big boys came in with their guns and imposed their own sense of order in such places as Libya and Ivory Coast.

In one case a very important person, his wife and son were found in their bedroom by those big boys and dragged out like animals taken for slaughter. Indeed the big man was so dazzled by the whole experience he looked like a rabbit caught in headlights.

In the other, the man was dragged out of a drainage pipe still believing he was in control.

Such is the delusional consequence of self-importance. There is a very thin line between bravado and self-deception. And as it happens we have so much of both in plenty.

Of course one can understand the need to put a brave face on things that were expected to have been done – like resolving the Libyan and Ivorian crises. If for no other reason, at least to remind people about your relevance and need for continued existence. And that is where the problem lies.

Exaggerated claims, bravado and face-saving, and the refusal to recognise and name reality are what perhaps prevents us from advancing fast enough. And the sooner we differentiate between theatre (often bad) and the real world the better for everyone.

From Rwanda with lessons – poverty can be rolled back

7 Feb

Small country with big ambitions. They can’t achieve them. That is how Rwanda’s plans to move quickly out of poverty and attain a middle income status are often dismissed by those who claim to know all about Africa’s development patterns and potential. They think they know the familiar pitfalls and believe that Rwanda will surely trip over one.

When you point out that there is progress and even show the physical evidence, they will grudgingly admit it, but quickly add that is only in the capital, and even then within a small elite.

 It now turns out that those ambitions are, after all, realisable and, actually, not big enough for the little country. Rwandans want more and believe they can achieve more. And all indications are that this can be done. Incontrovertible evidence – both physical and statistical – exists.

Of course Rwandans have never had doubts about this. And now there is hard evidence to back that belief. Two surveys – the Household Living Conditions and Demographic and Health surveys – published today show the extent to which poverty has been reduced and living standards raised in the last five years. Close to all targets were met, and in some instances, exceeded.

A few figures will illustrate this point.

It had been projected that people living in poverty would fall from 56.9% of the population in 2005/6 to 46% in 2012/13. As it is, the number had reduced to 44.9% by 2011.The reduction at national level was by an impressive 12 percentage points. This fact becomes significant when compared with the previous five years when the cut in poverty levels was by a mere two percentage points.

 In the same period, figure of people living in extreme poverty was nearly halved, tumbling from 40% to 24%.

Significantly, the reduction was registered in all the provinces of the country, with the Northern Province chalking up the highest decline.

Statisticians will tell you that these are very remarkable figures by any standards. Naturally, policy makers are very excited, with good reason, too. They can point to having achieved and even surpassed their planned objectives. But no one is bragging – at least not in public. They are level-headed enough to know that there is still a long way to go.

According to the National Institute of Statistics of Rwanda (NISR), the reduction in poverty and corresponding rise in living standards is attributable to a number of factors.

The big one is the successful implementation of the government’s Economic Development and Poverty Reduction Strategy.

Within the strategy improvements in agriculture loom large. Increased production owing to land consolidation and crop intensification (growing of a crop suited to a particular area), more use of fertilisers and other inputs and better harvest management have led to self-sufficiency in food and left more for the market. The report notes that there has been a growing shift from subsistence production to increased commercialisation of agriculture across the country.

Increased production and commercialisation have in turn led to a growing agro-business sector.

All of these translate into more incomes for Rwandans.

Secondly, jobs offering higher wages have been created in other sectors of the economy outside the farm sector.

And as the Demographic and Health Survey over the same period shows, a slowing population growth – owing in part to falling fertility rates, increased use of contraception and education – has contributed to higher living standards.

Other factors include a continuing shift from living in scattered to planned settlements (imidugudu). Over the last five years, the percentage of people living in planned settlements has more than doubled. This means that there more people have easier access to services. For instance, availability of safe water and sanitation rose significantly, and access to electricity as a source of lighting increased more than two-fold, Planned settlements, coupled with improved infrastructure, means that in nearly all cases, distance to a health facility or school have reduced greatly.

Clearly, Rwanda’s development ambitions are within reach if what we see every day and now have been shown today is anything to go by. And we do not need anybody’s approval or permission to set our bar high. If we have the ability to clear it and set it even higher, what’s wrong with that?

Today also sees the launch of the second phase of EDPRS – the overall framework for poverty reduction and economic development. Our planners and policy makers will have learnt from the first and set the bar at an appropriate height. But as it is, there is much to smile about and more to look forward to.

So all the dismissive talk about pie-in-the-sky ambitions will not worry Rwandans one little bit. They are probably going to be concerned about the size of the pie that they can and will surely lay their hands on. Even the sky is not too high