Archive | April, 2012

Self-belief and the Rwandan miracle

30 Apr

Nothing empowers people like self-belief. With loads of it, you can move mountains or turn deserts into fertile plains. Even the most fatalistic get so inspired by the feeling that they are able to act and have impact and cause real change.

Conversely, nothing is as stultifying as the absence of faith in the ability to make anything happen. The feeling of inability is so numbing that people are literally frozen into a permanent state of inaction. They are resigned to anything ever happening for them.

These contrasting states tell the story of Rwanda of the past fifty years. They represent the different fortunes of the country resulting from two different philosophies of the management of society.

The first is the current state in which Rwandans feel confident enough to change their lives and turn around the fortunes of their country. It is the period whose lessons about how they have done it are much sought after from across the world.

This is the period when the philosophy of management has changed from ruling to leading, from giving orders to offering directions about what should be done. It is the time when people are given encouragement, not harangued, in which the appeal is to their sense of self-worth, self-belief and own ability.

In almost all cases of calls to action, the message is carried in slogans or memorable phrases that capture the spirit of the moment. Slogans by definition are about two things – a rejection of the status quo and therefore call for change, or satisfaction with the current state of affairs and so a call for conservation. But whichever position, the effect is the lighting of the fire of belief in their ability to alter or maintain the situation, often for the better.

We all remember the effect of US President Barack Obama’s  “yes we can” and “change we can believe in” slogans in the last presidential campaign. Closer to home, in Kenya, ”Harambee” had a strong impact until politicians abused it.

In Rwanda today, we may have no classical slogans, but there are plenty of memorable words that have the same effect. Agaciro (dignity or self-worth) is probably one of  the most recognisable words in Kinyarwanda today, used by all – the mighty and lowly – and whose meaning is the same for all. But most significant is the recognition that it is only they, not anyone else, who can bestow agaciro on themselves by their actions and attitudes.

Then there are others which urge Rwandans to achieve the most they can, to extend themselves to the limits of their potential, not to be content with the ordinary or the mediocre. And so we often hear President Paul Kagame urging Rwandans to “be the best you can be”.

Similarly, the president has on many occasions discouraged dependency and instead pushed for taking charge of their lives by appealing to the people’s sense of pride. He asks whether they are happy living off other people’s left-overs, or being looked after by others when God gave them so much.

There is no doubt that these exhortations inspire people to apply themselves some more so as to be masters of their own situation. And they work because they are encouragements worth taking up, not because they are edicts that you ignore at your peril. Persuasion and not coercion is, in any case, the essence of good leadership.

It has not always been like this. There was a time when Rwandans  were lulled into the stupor of inaction. It was a time when those in power actually ruled. They ordered and directed that things be done in a particular manner or there would be dire consequences. The people were made to sing and dance to tunes composed at party headquarters and to repeat slogans coined by the head of state that extolled unproductive agriculture as if it was a virtue.

In any event, the slogans were so unvaried that they became clichés incapable of inspiring the people to greater useful action. Little wonder, then, that there was no qualitative improvement in the Rwandans’ lives. They did nothing for self-belief. Actually official pronouncements often discouraged initiative of any sort and denigrated any effort at personal or national improvement. Instead, they lulled the people into dependency and taught them to expect and be grateful to handouts from supposed do-gooders.

It is from this stultifying state that we have been recovering and distancing ourselves for nearly two decades now.

That distance is evident in President Kagame’s interactions with citizens. The message at these events is about doing more, being better and rising to a higher level  – individually and collectively. It speaks to human aspirations to a better life. The result is what has been called the Rwandan miracle. Put another way, the miracle comes from the belief that it is possible and within our means to alter our lives. That is the meaning of empowerment


Rejoice Rwandans: mindset is changing

24 Apr

For almost everything that does not go well in Rwanda – be it low production, poor service delivery, dependency or even poor reading culture – the excuse, and blame, has been one: a lament about mindset.

And the remedy has also been one: change of mindset.

We need not lament any more. The change in mindset is beginning to happen – at least that is the evidence one gets from President Paul Kagame’s visits upcountry and meetings with citizens.

Anyone who has been at any of these events knows they have a sort of carnival atmosphere. For the most part, they are characterised by song and dance, in what is called “morale” before the president arrives.

Now, there are several reasons for this “morale”. One is to keep the people who gather at these events very early occupied and entertained, put them in the mood of the event, so to speak, and keep away boredom and the pangs of hunger.

The other, and more significant one, is to instil in the people the national ethos of hard work, individual and collective dignity, progress, defending the national interest and many more. It is to facilitate and even celebrate that change of mindset.

This second reason for morale-boosting songs at public events is beginning to bear fruit. The songs project an image of Rwandans as actors in the change taking place in the country. In the past they would have been shown as helpless, passive victims of circumstances. The songs are a call to action for change.

And not surprisingly, the motif that runs through all of them is one of Rwandans acting upon their environment to change it for the better. The most famous song is a statement of ambitious intent. It speaks of the sons and daughters of Rwanda building the country and, through their own efforts, turning it into paradise. Some are about winning every form of contest. They are a collective vow to conquer every adversity, overcome all challenges and create a new reality. Yet others are a categorical rejection of dependency and instead talk about building self-reliance.

Overall, the impact of “morale” at public events is to boost the sense of dignity and confidence Rwandans increasingly feel as the principal actors in the story of their country.

The can-do attitude expressed in the songs has now extended to local government officials at the president’s upcountry visits. Everyone who stands up to speak lists impressive achievements and tells of ambitious plans for the future.  Even when challenges are mentioned, it is only to highlight the solutions that have been identified. Gone is the litany of woes and pleas for help that used to characterise such speeches.

You might say that this is to be expected, that the officials want to portray themselves as being on top of things in order to catch the eye of the chief executive and perhaps earn a promotion. Or, at the very least, keep their jobs for much longer. That may happen elsewhere, not in Rwanda.

No quarter is given to anyone who fiddles with truth. The risk of being exposed by citizens or through periodic audits and evaluation and the attendant costs are too high for any official to think of embellishing the reality. In any case such attempts are unthinkable in a country where appraisal of performance is based on evidence.

The now customary question and answer sessions between citizens and their president have also changed. There are more testimonies of people who, by dint of hard work, have become reasonably prosperous than appeals for help to get out of poverty. Equally, there are fewer questions about injustice and high handedness of local officials.

Again you may say that these sessions are stage-managed and that only those stories that back the officials’ claim to efficiency are permitted and critical ones silenced. That may be so. But it would not invalidate the existence of stories which illustrate the impact of Rwandans-driven change.

This change in mindset is an example of what is quickly emerging as a national ethic – the search for solutions to whatever the challenge and the seizure of every available opportunity for self and collective advancement. Indeed President Kagame has on many occasions urged Rwandans to put questions behind and bring solutions to the fore.

His message has always been about work and actions that bring about change in the lives of the citizens. It has been about results, benefits and profit from that work, and the dignity that comes from self-sufficiency.

That message has taken hold around the country and the proof is in the change of mindset that is increasingly becoming evident.

Whatever happened to ideology?

17 Apr

What has happened to ideology in African politics? This is not an idle question. Anyone observing the political scene in Africa is bound to conclude that ideology is dead. Was it actually ever alive in the first place?

By convention, the organisation of society (politics) is based on ideas or programmes about how best to manage a given society – moving it from point A to point B. Political parties are, therefore, built on a shared core of beliefs and programmes by members about how to transform society, provide public goods and attain a higher standard of living for the people.

And because, ideally, there should be different programmes there should also be many choices. The availability of different programmes to choose from and the ability to exercise that choice is what is commonly called democracy.

Now, I will be excused if I say I don’t see much of that choice in the politics of most African countries – even those hailed as democratic. I don’t see much of that, either in ideology or programmes.

My lack of faith is not for not wanting to trying to believe. There is nothing to believe in. Even the leaders of political parties don’t have that much faith either. Notice how, at the slightest excuse – be it personal differences with some members, rejection by members or simply spite – they jump from one party to another, ditch one for another only to abandon that and form or join yet another.

For many of our politicians a political party is not a vehicle of ideas and programmes for the transformation of society. It is rather a platform for ascending to power for personal reasons.

How else can one explain the following phenomena that have come to characterise African politics?

First, there have been the all too familiar attempts to fiddle with the constitution to extend term limits. Attempts to hang on to power have often been based on the leader’s unique ability to deliver to his people. In our region, President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda has successfully removed term limits and been re-elected several times.

Then there have been attempts to create elected dynasties. To our credit most of these attempts have been foiled – sometimes by the people, at the polls, as in the case of Senegal, or in street protests as in Egypt; other times somewhat fortuitously as happened in Malawi with the death of President Bingu Wa Mutharika.

Still, we have dynasties in Togo and Gabon, and there will be efforts to create more.

The best examples of the death of the ideological party are in East Africa, especially Kenya.

Since the return of multi-party politics in Kenya in the 1990s, there have been formations, permutations and reconfigurations that are mind-boggling even to historians and seasoned commentators.

For instance, if it suits him, Raila Odinga will join KANU. If that does not work, he will not hesitate to leave and form an alliance with other politicians whom he did not see eye to eye previously. Should that alliance not deliver power, another political arrangement will be formed.

Already, his Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) has seen the departure of influential member, William Ruto to start his own party. Party vice president Musalia Mudavadi, who also harbours presidential ambitions, is on the verge of leaving ODM.

Uhuru Kenyatta is now prepared to ditch KANU, which is like throwing away a priceless family heirloom. If the historically prized party stands in his way to power, he will jump and start or join another one.

A similar trend can be observed in Uganda and Tanzania. In the latter country, dissatisfied individuals have sometimes broken away from the dominant political party, Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) – not for ideological reasons, but to further their personal ambitions.

In some instances, some of these individuals have moved from party to party – like some political journeymen – looking for one which will serve their interests.

In all these cases individual interests of party leaders take precedence over ideology. Actually ideology is non-existent.

Twenty-five years ago, a younger Yoweri Museveni championed a brand of politics he called no-party democracy where competition for political office was based on individual merit. His argument was that there was insufficient base for most political organisations in Africa.

He may well have been right. Political competition in his own country bears him out. Even in his National Resistance Movement (NRM) there is little by way of ideology that holds party members together. In recent times there has been a growing tendency for members to go their separate ways.

Often it takes a retreat to Kyankwanzi to bring them back in line. The president either dangles some carrot or knocks heads together to secure a semblance of party unity and common purpose.

There is little indication that anything has changed in the last twenty five years. We see individual interests passing for party programmes. And as long as this situation obtains we shall see more political journeymen and a much longer transition to real democracy.

Why Kagame is sure Rwanda won’t lose gains

10 Apr

“Those who still harbour genocide ideology will not be allowed to take us back to our tragic history. They will not. They cannot. They have already failed.” These were part of President Paul Kagame’s concluding remarks at the start of the genocide commemoration week on Saturday 7th April. At other times the fighting spirit behind the words would have brought out a thunderous applause. Not so this time. The mood was too sombre for that.

He was not done yet. He went on in the same vein and declared: “There is not a chance in many millions for them to succeed with us. We are more than ready to be tested on this. It does not matter who back them. It will not work.”

Tough talk? Certainly. Anything to back it? Absolutely.

It is now almost customary that President Kagame will make a hard-hitting speech on April 7th.  Rwandans love it and have come to expect it. And it is not because of the tough words, but rather because he says what they feel – the resolve that never again should genocide happen in the country; anger that it was allowed to happen and that not enough is being done to bring culprits to book; and the steely determination to move on and better their lives.

The president’s words speak of a new Rwanda – confident in its capacity, proud of its achievements and focussed on a non-reversible forward march.

This has perhaps been the unintended consequence of the genocide, but also the product of a conscious post-genocide effort.

Not since pre-colonial times – certainly not since the glory days of the expansion of Rwanda – have Rwandans felt so much pride in their country and nationality. Not since those times have they been eager to display their pride.

The feeling comes from the knowledge that they are doing the right thing; from the evidence of lives that are improving daily, mainly from their own efforts. They see ahead greater prospects of improvement. It comes from the satisfaction that they have built a strong foundation of nationhood that cannot be shaken easily.

All these have given Rwanda a measure of power and respect among nations not seen before.  It is natural therefore that this should fuel national pride.

It is also normal for human beings to identify with power, success and well-being, and want to own them. The reverse is true. No one wants to be associated with weakness and failure. They will want to put daylight between themselves and the very idea of failure.

In post-genocide Rwanda, this is the case. It helps make the gains of the last eighteen years irreversible.

Of course, there will always be nationals and foreigners who will deny Rwanda’s progress – maybe out of envy, or the feeling that it should not be done without their participation (or permission). Opportunists of every hue will argue that the progress is really an illusion and is in any case unsustainable, and that what appears like satisfaction is really masked fear.

I have a feeling, though, that privately they admire what is happening here, only something stops them from admitting it publicly. Only an idiot can argue with figures and physical evidence.

All the vitriol and venom they pour on Rwanda and the president are only the reflection of the frustration caused by the struggle between acceptance of the actual reality and an impotent wish for a different reality.

As we left Amahoro Stadium last Saturday, a Member of Parliament and former diplomat told me that it was impossible to slide back to 1994 and that in any case the scale of killing of that time is unimaginable today. He made the assertion with the same confidence as President Kagame had done earlier.

How so, I asked.

“It’s simple. The mobile phone is the insurance”, he said.

The mobile phone has become such a necessary communication tool for nearly everyone that we cannot imagine the world without it. The near total secrecy of what was happening here eighteen years ago is impossible today. The whole world would learn of the massacres – complete with footage – of the massacres as soon as they happened. With sms, twitter and other forms of social media, the news would be out literally in a flash. So would warnings of impending attacks, the whereabouts of marauding packs of killers and so on.

Lessons from the success of the Arab Spring are still fresh in our minds.

Other guarantees that gains we have made so far will not be lost lie in the lessons learnt from the past. The principal lesson is that Rwandans have to do things themselves. They must remain in charge of their own affairs.

So, yes, as President Kagame said, there is no chance in millions that we will slide back. And it’s not just tough talk. It is the only option.

Where art, sport and development meet

3 Apr

What is the best measure of a country’s progress? Most people will say: GDP, per capita income, or annual economic growth rate. The bigger, the greater the progress.

Others will cite other indices – like life expectancy, infant and maternal mortality, literacy, human development index and many more.

All are correct, of course – measurable, tangible and visible, even to the non-expert.

In all these indicators Rwanda has been doing well – very well, in fact, considering the depth to which we had sunk eighteen years ago. But even by any other measure, we are doing very well. And Rwandans can be proud of this feat and justifiably celebrate, not only a resurrection (which it is), but also development that far surpasses that before we died.

There are other indicators that show how far a people have moved, but remain unreported, perhaps because they are not easily statistically measurable. For this reason, and because they remain outside the definition and calculations of such bodies as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and specialised United Nations Agencies, they do not attract the attention of the numbers experts.

Most of the indicators that go unmeasured are of a cultural nature.

As with the economic indicators, Rwanda has registered phenomenal growth in these areas. And like them, they are a measure of the development we have made as a people.

Take music and dance, for example. There have been more compositions in the last ten years than in all the previous forty years of independence. It has not been only in quantity, but quality and variety as well.

The level of creativity is amazing. There is the strictly traditional that helps conserve the original forms and keeps cultural purists happy. Then there are the creative adaptations of dance and music forms from elsewhere that blend with traditional forms and produce a modern variety that remains distinctly Rwandan – as Inganzo Ngari has done.

In music, Rwandan artistes have shown a special ability to adapt foreign instruments and forms to accommodate Rwandan musical traditions and create music that at once speaks to different generations. The expression, too, is significant. It has moved from a plaintive, sorrowful lament to one of optimism, confidence and even assertiveness.

The explosion in artistic creativity in the last decade or so has seen the birth of so many cultural troupes and music groups that it is difficult to keep pace with them. And, crucially, artistes are not doing it just for fun; they are also making money out of it.

This is a significant development. It means that we are at a level of development where the people are beginning to satisfy basic needs and have extra to pay for entertainment. This in turn means that artistes can develop and live off their talents. There is therefore an obvious connection between the creation and enjoyment of art and the material, emotional and spiritual wellbeing of people.

Another area of growth that has largely gone unnoticed, but which is increasingly begging for attention, is sport.

For a long time the only sport most Rwandans knew was football. The last few years, however, have seen the growth of other sports previously unknown in this country.

Many of you will recall media reports two weeks ago that said our rugby team was making heads turn in Hong Kong. A few years ago, not many people had heard of rugby. Fewer still thought it was a suitable sport for Rwandans. They thought it was rough, aggressive and dangerous, and that Rwandans did not have the physique for it. Well, they were wrong. Rugby has caught on in schools, at club and national level. Rwandans are competing in international tournaments as the Sevens Team showed.

Cricket is another sport that is developing fast and is perhaps more suited to the Rwandan character. While it does not require massive physique to play, it takes stamina, patience, endurance and strength of character – traits that we have in plenty. We are now playing cricket at home and taking part in global competitions.

Other previously unknown sports in Rwanda that are making a strong presence include field hockey and netball.

The development of sport tells us something about the state of this country.

It shows that there is a growing number of citizens who have time for leisure and the means to relax and enjoy a beautiful spectacle. They are able to do this because they are no longer simply eking out a living. They are able to gain profit from their work and as a result have higher living standards that enable them to enjoy the finer things of life.

As with art, it will not be long before an increasing number of our citizens begin earning a living from sport.

Sport has another quality that embodies the Rwandan spirit – competitiveness. We want to be the best we can be, and for this we are prepared to push ourselves to the limit so as to be among the best.

In this sense, artistic and sports development are both an expression of intent and reflection of achievement. We are more familiar with the economic growth figures of the last decade. No less impressive is the progress in artistic and athletic expression – both signs of development.