Ideas, Stories, and Profiles

There are two or three things that are symbolic of important reforms President Paul Kagame’s leadership has put in place since Twenty-seventeen. One, the reforms in the justice sector. These can be seen particularly through the creation of the Rwanda Investigation Bureau (RIB), which was established in early Twenty-eighteen. Two, the professionalisation of the military. Ongoing strides, for instance, can be viewed through leadership changes in top positions at the Ministry of Defense. Faces of younger, well-read, and seemingly pragmatic senior military officers send a positive message.

These reforms are important because they lay the foundation for rule of law and peace for the future. In times of political crisis, the military and justice sector, at the very least, form a pair of institutions to ensure stability. (I could have missed out on another element, but it’s always better to leave such details for experts to explain.)

To understand many of the reforms that are taking place in Kigali, one needs to understand what the country's leadership has set itself to achieve. Rwanda is looking to become an upper-middle-income country by Twenty-thirty-five and a high-income economy by the year Twenty-fifty. And, to achieve this, according to a collaborative study between the government and the World Bank, the country will have “to grow faster than any country (China and Korea included) has in the past.”

Across the country and abroad, people look to Kigali, the capital, to form a picture of Rwanda’s progress. So, the decisions Kigali makes are central to accelerating growth in key sectors such as productivity and innovation, trade, and governance. How residents of this city live, the way they think themselves and their leaders, and the choices they make in the next decade will define the country’s potential to achieving its ambitions. Radical shifts in mentality and culture are certain to happen as Rwanda explores its potential furthermore. And as new generations wave into markets — amassing economic power and influence — and other nationalities walk in (thinking here of recent immigration policy updates), it is evident that Kigali is marching towards multiculturalism and open markets.

In many respects, this change is inevitable and Rwanda’s current political leaders understand this. It is the reason why a pool of highly-skilled development experts was appointed to form an advisory council for the city. It is chaired by Prof. Paul Collier, a highly respected development economist whose scholarship has covered the causes and consequences of civil war, the effects of aid, and democracy in low-income and natural-resource rich societies. The presence of his knowledge and like-minded brains in this city is, with no doubt, timely.

Of course, Rwanda is now used to change and the government has enjoyed implementing new ideas with minimal resistance. Sure Rwandans are more accustomed to policy change than others in the region. Kigali is a city where change is always welcomed. Having experienced two decades of agile policies, Rwandans have grown a culture that’s accepting of change — perhaps more subconsciously. As a matter of fact, when the education system experienced the shift to using English (from French) as a medium of instruction, things went seemingly smooth even as the planning around it was not well-thought-out. It was a reckless move, yet empowering, that attracted little-to-no resistance.

But as new reforms are implemented to meet further goals, many still find it difficult to make sense of the trends (even the local media) and elements of progress take shape without the full participation of all necessary stakeholders. This has consequences that affect the sustainability of projects. To raise awareness, Rwandan leaders and institutions need to communicate their visions more effectively as it is key for citizens to clearly understand the rationale of the government’s ambitions. This could increase support and citizen participation in national projects. Without this, for example, a cosmopolitan Kigali will happen way before many native residents realise it.

Cosmopolitanism disrupts local traditions. It instils the need to innovate faster and it can be unforgiving. Its nature forms an environment where progress is driven by reason (more obviously), with a system working in harmony, and not by individuals with power; where leaders learn and adapt faster, where they communicate to educate and empower rather than dictate; where a free-market economy thrives, where competition is vicious yet empowering; where individual freedoms and human rights are cherished and protected; a city where capitalism makes sense, supported by highly democratic institutions. We are not yet there and such reforms are essential, at least because cosmopolitan cities attract individuals with a highly independent mindset and are more likely to become hubs of economic growth and innovation.

Rwanda’s vision sets Kigali and its leaders on a path to become more liberal (at least in the classical sense), and a change in attitude is foreseeable. Individuals and local businesses that are reluctant to change will crash and pragmatism will be a driving force for success in a highly competitive environment. Many of the city’s “old ways” will not just have to adapt but also evolve. The freer the system in the city, the more forward-looking and consistent with policy, and the more open, Kigali will present a clearer picture — and a window — to a more prosperous society.

In his recent book, The Future of Capitalism: Facing the New Anxieties, Prof. Collier says, “If the state tries to impose a set of values different from those of its citizens it forfeits trust and its authority erodes.” He is right. But I am afraid some of the universal values might feel “different” even if they’re the right ones to embrace. The challenge, still, is to educate and re-educate.

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