Twenty-three years ago, Rwanda was on its knees. The economy was a wreck with most of the country’s facilities and services non-existent, in the aftermath of the 1994 genocide against the ethnic group Tutsi. Economists, historians and theorists wrote off the country and predicted it would become just another failed African state. But like the proverbial phoenix that rose from its ashes, Rwanda has beaten bookmakers, theorists and economists to put the economy back on track and even performed far better than many other economies around the world – all in under two decades.
Rwanda’s name will forever be linked with one hundred apocalyptic days. In 1994 a genocide infamously wiped out 800 000 men, women and children and left no family unscarred. As a guerrilla commander who marched from the bush to the capital, Kigali, ended the nightmare. The man who stopped the slaughter was Paul Kagame, at the head of an armed Tutsi force known as the Rwandan Patriotic Front. That man became president, a leader who ushered Rwanda back from total destruction, took back the narrative and tilted the scales more towards reconciliation than revenge. Rwanda looked set to become the latest chapter in Africa’s sad continuing story of secret jungle armies, sudden coups and one-party rule that crowns repression with poverty. However, the country that experienced negative growth during and after the genocide that left over one million people dead and thousands more displaced, is today one of the fastest growing economies in the world. From negative growth of -11.4 per cent in 1994 to 7 per cent in 2014 and 6.9 per cent in 2015, Rwanda has proved its detractors wrong, especially those who let it down in its time of need, or wrote it off as a hopeless situation.
This miraculous feat of resilience could be explained in many ways, but it mostly has a lot to do with fighting spirit and the belief in self-reliance that drive most of the initiatives; which have seen the country become a rising star on the continent. Much of Rwanda’s growing economy lies in the implementation of an economic model focusing on fighting corruption, rebuilding the infrastructure, increasing the agricultural productivity and tourism.
Meanwhile human rights groups continue to assail the government for repressive political policies and alleged extrajudicial killings and crackdowns on the press. The country has been engaged in a high-profile diplomatic dispute with South Africa over attacks on Rwandan dissidents living there, including the murder of the country’s former spy chief in January 2014, who was found strangled in a Johannesburg hotel room. President Paul Kagame has also come under fire for the approval of constitutional changes that would allow him to staying in power for a third term last year.
Nevertheless, most of the critics are individuals from the West. These are critics who at times ignore the challenges the country has faced. Many fail to understand that Rwanda is a country that is not only trying to heal from the deep-seated wounds of a society shattered by a genocide; but also, western intervention that damaged the nation’s prospects after the colonists’ departure. Rwanda’s story does not begin with the 1994 genocide but with decades of conflict, armed or otherwise, among a people whose only real difference is an ethnic identity that was a product of colonial rule. The fabric of society, ripping for decades until it finally shredded completely, must be hewed together anew. Killers and victims must live together. The government must find a way to organize its population while securing peace. The economy must return to its feet and there is a need for the state to rebuild trust between itself and its population.
For this reason, it is important to understand why the west should not impose its own notions of democracy on Rwanda and Africa. For decades, one-size-fits-all development and democratic prescriptions have been imposed on African nations, with unsatisfactory, sometimes tragic results. The west unfairly applies its own standards, almost a thousand years in development, onto the newly developing world. In much the same way there is a need to question a regime that represses the democratic rights of its people and journalists.
So, Rwanda has made remarkable political and economic progress and reforms, which are praised by multiple non-governmental organizations focused on development. Equally there is a need for neighboring countries and the rest of the world to question the human rights violations without being the moral police, dressed in a one-sized democracy “uniform”. It’s important to remember that Rwanda also took a notable journey in not looking back. While many say the country has turned into an authoritarian state, Rwanda has also shown it is the great success story of a post-conflict state in Africa.