The King and Queen-makers

Published online February 28, 2011

Driving through the countryside or city streets in Uganda or Rwanda, one is greeted by the same sight over and again – children. Youngsters in colourful uniforms fill the sidewalks and paths every morning and afternoon as they trek to and from school.

Jogging in the early morning down Kigali streets I have more than once been embarrassingly out-run by little girls in dress shoes and backpacks, screeching gleefully as they dash past. Meanwhile, the smaller children toddle curiously around the home, and babies find themselves securely strapped to the backs of their busy moms. You don’t have to look up demographic figures to know that one word characterizes the population: young.

In a region long defined by civil war, violence and dictatorship, youth is the new and hopeful quality permeating society. The wars that wracked the region for the past several decades have drawn to a close, one by one – the Ugandan civil wars of the 1970s and 1980s, the 20-year terror of the Lord’s Resistance Army in Northern Uganda, the Rwanda genocide of 1994, and the Congo wars that followed. As the worst episodes of violence recede, how will newfound security affect the political, social, and economic opportunities and beliefs of the new generation? How will the youth relate to the decisions of leaders whose lived experiences are increasingly distant from their own?

The children and young adults of today will live profoundly different lives than those of their parents and grandparents. While conflict continues in eastern Congo, a peace and cautious hope has come to most of the region. Nearly half of Rwanda’s population today was born after 1994. 52% of Rwandans and 61% of Ugandans are less than 20 years old. Nearly three quarters of all Ugandans have lived under President Yoweri Museveni for their entire lives.

Most Ugandans and Rwandans, therefore, know only stories of the terrible wars that once ravaged society. The scars, visible or not, are everywhere, but the memory is increasingly derived from history passed down by those who lived through it. As these children come of age, they face very different challenges than their parents before them. The vast majority will attended primary school, and will read and write in English. Many will graduate from secondary school, and an increasing number will obtain a university degree. Unlike their parents, most will not fear for their lives, but for their livelihoods.

Yet for now, those who govern the countries in which these children grow up – individuals who were intimately involved in the conflicts of the past several decades – continue to make calculations, judgments, and risk assessments based on the experiences through which they have survived, as have done leaders before them. National security is at the top of the agenda for every government, but the price one is willing to pay for security is shaped by experience. For the older generation, there may be no price too high. For the younger generation, the choices may not be so clear-cut.

It is difficult to assess the extent of the divide between today’s youngsters and the generation that preceded them. Often votes are a good indication of political and policy preferences, but the post-conflict generation is only just coming of age. Surveys too can help, but ultimately we are left to some speculation.

Recent surveys in Rwanda show that both the young and old continue to place a high value on national security. Overall, 44% of Rwandans said that “strong defence forces” should be the top national priority, with a similar percentage across all age groups, according to the World Values Survey. In the U.S., by contrast, while 38% of all Americans surveyed believe strong defence forces is the most important national priority, only 20% of those under 30 list national defence as the top priority. The vastly different security challenges facing each country have surely shaped these preferences.

In Rwanda, an extraordinarily large percentage of people not only support strong defence forces as the top national priority but would also contribute to this goal – 95% of all Rwandans and 96% of 15-29 year-olds surveyed said they would be willing to fight for their country. In the U.S., only 41% of 15-29 year-olds were willing to do so. 91% of Rwandans also expressed a preference for greater respect for authority in the country. All this suggests that so far, there is little evidence of a generational difference in security preferences. Nevertheless, it is important to keep in mind that most of the peacetime generation is still too young to be included in any survey. We are likely still observing the preferences of an adult population for whom the remnants of conflict may still be too fresh, and continued violence in eastern Congo too close.

In Uganda, evidence is mixed regarding whether the old and young have different preferences when it comes to national priorities, but there appear to be greater differences than in Rwanda. There are obviously serious economic challenges facing Ugandans, which may trump security concerns for the ordinary citizen — 64% of 18-29 year-olds were unemployed in 2008, according to an Afrobarometer survey. For most Ugandans, “improving economic conditions for the poor” is the most important national priority. Only 17% of 18-29 year olds listed maintaining order in the nation as the highest priority. Interestingly, young people expressed greater fear of political intimidation or violence than the very old in Uganda – 36% of young people said they had “a lot” of fear of political violence. And worryingly, the majority of Ugandans believe political competition often or always leads to conflict.

Uganda and Rwanda are both societies in transition  — transition away from conflict, transition toward greater political participation, transition out of poverty. How today’s children will view the behaviour and policies of leaders whose life experiences are increasingly distant from their own is yet to be seen. It may be too soon to detect generational differences in any scientific way, but ready or not, the youth bulge is coming into its own. Young people already make up the lion’s share of the population in the region. In just a few years they will be the king and queen-makers, or breakers. Watch this space.

Rwanda’s next president

Published online January 16, 2011.

There was quite a kerfuffle following President Kagame’s last visit to Uganda in December 2011. The hoo-ha that played out over the airwaves, news pages and Twitter had nothing to do with the trip per se – relations between Presidents Kagame and Museveni have been warming over the past six months and such visits are becoming the norm – but rather with repeated questions about presidential term limits in Rwanda. Amending the constitution to lift term limits is a relatively new trick in the handbook of institutional manipulations. President Museveni, together with the Ugandan parliament, steamrolled right through term limits in 2005, paving the way for a 30-plus-year reign for the former rebel leader. By the time Uganda marks its Jubilee in October of this year, just a few months after Rwanda’s 50-year celebration, Yoweri Museveni and the National Resistance Movement will have held power for over half of the post-independence period.

Whether or not Kagame will attempt to follow in the footsteps of Museveni and lift term limits in advance of the next presidential elections in 2017 is a tired argument. Personally, I doubt that he will do so, but neither do I think it would be at all a difficult task. But that is neither here nor there. Just as there will be a South Africa without Nelson Mandela, there will be a Uganda without Museveni and a Rwanda without Kagame. Though there will undoubtedly continue to be discussion regarding Kagame’s candidacy up until 2017, ultimately the more productive debate is the extent to which promising and talented individuals have opportunities today to become tomorrow’s leaders.

I’m not going speculate who the next president will be, but I’d like to float the idea that Rwanda’s next head of state will be a woman. Rwanda has led the way in bringing women into politics and positions of power, and women around the world are making inroads every day into politics, business, academia, and beyond. As in Uganda’s National Resistance Army and Movement (NRA/M), women have held key positions in the government and party of the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF). The presence of women in politics has been steadily increasing since 1994, and in 2003 Rwanda joined Uganda, Namibia, Mozambique, South Africa, and several other countries in implementing a gender-based quota for legislative seats. In the 2003 election, women won nearly half of all seats in the legislature.

Women have also been well represented in other areas of government and civil society in Rwanda, and have played key roles in rebuilding society in the aftermath of the genocide. Many women have been elected gacaca judges, and women groups have worked to address a wide array of issues, from health to microfinance. As of 2008, Rwanda is home to the only majority female parliament in the world. Women today hold several key ministries, including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Louise Mushikiwabo) and the Ministry of Health (Agnes Binagwaho), as well as senior management positions in institutions such as the Rwanda Development Board (RDB). And regardless of your view of her, Victoire Ingabire has emerged as the figurehead of the official opposition in Rwanda.

While women representatives do not alter policy or the playing field overnight, research suggests that women’s participation in politics has the potential to affect both policy and perceptions about women’s abilities. Studies in India found that local politicians invest in public goods that are most important to their lives, and that types of investment differ by gender and location. For example, women tend to invest more in drinking water than their male counterparts. In Rwanda, women parliamentarians have been credited with pushing for the reform of laws regarding issues such as inheritance, discrimination against women and sexual assault.

In addition to the possibility of affecting policy outcomes, some research shows that the presence of women in politics helps to alter perceptions and prejudices about women’s ability to lead and govern. A group of researchers from the US and India found that where women in India held elected positions in local government, initially with the help of gender quotas for these positions, men tended to hold less negative stereotypes about the efficacy of women in positions of authority.

Additionally, exposure to female leaders tended to increase people’s perceptions of women’s abilities over time. Although community members may rate poorly the first woman elected to a position, her successor would generally be rated more favorably. Exposure to women in politics, at least in some settings, appears to reduce negative stereotypes about women’s abilities to govern, and will likely encourage more women to enter the ring.

In Rwanda, many women have had opportunities to develop the skills and experience to lead. While the debate on term limits rages on, it is important to think beyond personalities—however formative or influential—and focus on the processes through which leadership is reproduced. Rwanda’s political system, its many flaws notwithstanding, has allowed women to participate in government and policymaking to a greater extent than in many other countries. These opportunities for leadership will help shape the next generation and next era of Rwanda’s history. It would not be surprising, therefore, if Rwanda’s next president comes out of this network of powerful and promising women leaders.

Women’s leadership in Rwanda has evolved alongside the innovative approaches the country has tested in its recovery from conflict. Like other challenges Rwanda faces, both general and gender-specific, from poverty to maternal mortality, it is to processes and not individuals that attention should be paid.  Despite urgent challenges, real opportunities exist for ordinary citizens, men and women alike, to grow up in good health with a good education. The impact of public health and education policies on Rwanda’s political development may not be obvious now, but will eventually become evident. The democratic space in Rwanda is still being tested and shaped, discussed and critiqued, pushed and pulled. Ultimately the future lies not with an individual, but with a system that allows the next generation of leaders to emerge.

Kagame on NPR

In case you missed it, listen/read Kagame’s short interview on NPR here. It sounded to me like Montagne asked the same question about five times. I’m not sure what she was hoping he would say, “yes I am a dictator”? Instead of asking how oppressive/repressive he is, I think she would have been much better off asking about the greatest challenges the RPF faces in the coming years, what he considers the greatest failure to date (as well as plans to rectify it in the next 7 years), and an assessment of his personal role in state and nation building. All of these would have led, I think, to far more reflective and useful answers, rather than the more combative and/or defensive ones we have all heard before.

President (re)elect Paul Kagame

Preliminary election results announced by Rwanda’s National Electoral Commission put Kagame’s win at about 92.9% of the vote, followed by Dr. Damascene Ntawukuriryayo (PSD) with 4.9%, Prosper Higiro (PL) with 1.5% and Dr. Alvera Mukabaramba with 0.7%. In the diaspora, he won nearly 97% of the vote, reports the New Times today.

This result was entirely anticipated by all, but I’m sure Kagame is happy to have the election behind him nonetheless. After serving his second seven year term, the next presidential election will be held in 2017. There is much speculation as to whether he will go the way of Museveni and others in massaging the constitution to accommodate for an extended state house stay. I do not think he will. In a recent Economist article, Kagame was quoted as saying, “I would be very happy for a woman to succeed me,” — and I think he means it. I can definitely see a female president (not, however, Ingabire) in Rwanda’s future.

For more on this, live and from the president (re)elect himself, tune in to 89.7 Contact FM tonight at 7pm, where President Kagame is scheduled to be the guest tonight, hosted by  journalist Andrew Mwenda of Uganda’s Independent magazine.

Kagame on the Campaign Trail

Kagame rally in Kigali, August 6, 2010

Campaign rally for incumbent president Paul Kagame yesterday in Kigali. Presidential elections will be held on Monday in Rwanda, though the outcome is already quite clear.

Kagame's final rally, August 7, 2010

A young man displays the RPF manifesto on his chest at Saturday's rally

No one cares about our nations more than we do

We appreciate support from the outside, but it should be support for what we intend to achieve ourselves. No one should pretend that they care about our nations more than we do; or assume that they know what is good for us better than we do ourselves. They should, in fact, respect us for wanting to decide our own fate.

Says Kagame in his op-ed last week in the Financial Times.

While I am concerned that certain individuals high up in the echelons of power actually care about themselves far more than their nations, I agree wholeheartedly with Kagame’s sentiment. Especially the bit about supporting a country’s own priorities, whether they be in health, education, infrastructure, etc., and not simply making up your own.

I wrote about donor distortions to Uganda’s health sector in this week’s Independent. I don’t think many U.S. taxpayers, for example, realise that they are contributing more to fighting HIV/AIDS in Uganda than the Ugandan government is contributing to Uganda’s health sector in its entirety. This is unacceptable on a number of levels. The current state of affairs is not the fault of only one party, but the donor/recipient relationship will never be equal and those involved should act/think accordingly, political correctness of “partnership” notwithstanding.

Rwanda: Repressive or Responsible?

I am sure the Rwandan government will be blasted for their recent suspension of BBC broadcasts in Kinyarwanda, accused of being authoritarian and repressive. But before anyone jumps to conclusions I would like to see what was actually said, specifically by Faustin Twagiramungu, the former Prime Minister who now lives in exile in Belgium.

This is as much as I could glean, as reported by the AFP:

During the programme, Radio Rwanda said, former prime minister Faustin Twagiramungu, who now lives in exile in Belgium, said that as a Hutu, he could never give in to Tutsi demands to apologize for the 1994 genocide.

The government had this to say of the situation:

“We have suspended all BBC programmes in Kinyarwanda because they had become a real poison with regards to the reconciliation of the Rwandan people,” Information Minister Louise Mushikiwabo told AFP.

“We could no longer tolerate that,” she said. “The Rwandan government shall protest strongly, until the BBC can give us guarantees of responsible journalism.”

The editorial in Rwanda’s New Times comes down hard on both the BBC and the international community, concluding:

Even as we prepare to celebrate World Press Freedom Day, under the broader theme to do with the role of media in national reconciliation, the behavior by the BBC in Rwanda leaves us with much to ponder on.

Rwanda has every right to take exception when her history and efforts at moving on through reconciliation are insulted. Just like any other country reserves that right.

In Germany those who deny the Holocaust face judicial processes. Dutch politician Geert Wilder was banned in London and indicted in Holland for his radical anti-Islam views.

As I have mentioned before, those who discuss Rwanda are often polarized, either adoring or despising the government of Paul Kagame, and I think both sides are too quick to judge. Whether the response of the government in this case was an overreaction is impossible to debate (much less determine) without knowing what was being said on that particular show, and without fully understanding the social and political climate in Rwanda today.

Michael Keating of World Politics Review says the sheen has come off Kagame. Human Rights Watch demands Rwanda restore the BBC to air, saying:

“This suspension of the BBC reflects the Rwandan government’s growing crackdown on free speech,” said Georgette Gagnon, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “If Rwanda is truly committed to the fundamental right of free expression, it should allow differing viewpoints on genocide issues and related government policies.”

Meanwhile, just to demonstrate the degree of this polarization, on the adoring side we have Pastor Rick Warren, who has just nominated Paul Kagame as one of TIME magazine’s 100 Most Influential People, gushing:

Kagame’s leadership includes a number of uncommon characteristics: One is his willingness to listen and learn from to those who oppose him, and even find ways to partner with them.

When Stephen Kinzer was writing a biography of Kagame, the president gave him a list of his critics and suggested that Kinzer could discover what the president was really like by interviewing them. Only a humble, yet confident, leader would do that.

Another uncommon characteristic is Kagame’s zero tolerance for corruption. Rwanda is one of few countries where I’ve never been asked for a bribe. Anytime a government worker is caught in corruption, he is publicly exposed and dealt with. It is a model for the entire country – and the rest of the world too.

So the debate continues…

Blogging Kagame’s university tour

Rwandan president Paul Kagame’s recent trip to the U.S. has got people talking, particularly about his emphasis on technology and education investment.

It is still too early to judge, but I am enthusiastic about the present Rwandan government investment strategy to initiate the necessary infrastructure to take the technological momentum and unlock the private sector possibilities- building of a national fibre network, roll out of national WiMAX access, a Kigali technology park and business incubator and external fibre landing stations to connect Rwanda to the coming east African undersea fibre. The strategies success or failure will hinge crucially on handover of the impetus to private sector actors. Indeed now it is up to private enterprise, foreign investment and the countries talent to sustain this momentum and fulfil Vision 2020’s ambition of Rwanda as a regional technology and telecommunications hub.

Says Jim Cust, writing for the Bottom Billion Blog.

Africa Unchained also linked to Kagame’s lecture at MIT.

President Kagame will also be visiting Stanford University this month. These are the details I have dug up for those who are interested and in the area:

The Impact of the Global Slowdown on Africa
President Paul Kagame, Republic of Rwanda

April 24, 2009, 4:00-6:00p.m.
Stanford Faculty Club
RSVP’s required and accepted on a first come first serve basis.
Stanford students must show Stanford ID.

RSVP Dafna Baldwin (650) 725-6668 or dafb@stanford.edu


Check it out and judge for yourself…

Debating Rwanda

Starting a conversation about Rwanda is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get. Observers of the small East African nation are often polarized in their views of the country’s governance — either President Paul Kagame is an inspirational genius getting things done in a country that was hacking itself to death just 15 years ago, or he is a brutal dictator, quashing the opposition, press and anyone else who threatens his power or so much as mentions the words “Hutu” or “Tutsi”. Whichever side you take, it is nearly impossible to talk about Rwanda without talking about Kagame. Because for many, Kagame = Rwanda (which is not to suggest that this is the way he would want to be perceived).

During the 15 year commemoration/remembrance of the 1994 Rwanda genocide last week, there were a flurry of articles and blog posts written on the subject, some applauding and others criticizing Rwanda’s current government. You could almost wonder if you were reading about the same country while reading two articles like VOA’s “Rwanda Gacaca Criticized as Unfair for Genocide Trials“, and then “Rwanda 15 Years On” by Josh Ruxin, director of Rwanda Works and Columbia University public health expert.

Meanwhile, human rights organizations have also been hard at work to publicize their own assessments. Human Rights Watched published a news story last week titled, “The Power of Horror in Rwanda” in the Los Angeles Times and lists many more country reports here. In their 2008 Annual Report on Rwanda, Reporters Without Borders wrote: “Appalling relations persisted between the government and a section of the independent press, especially the more highly critical publications…”

If you talk to journalists and some members of the diplomatic community in Uganda, you will hear stories of journalists being deported from Rwanda, picked up at their offices and driven to the airport without time to even collect their belongings, you will hear of the arrest of those who speak critically of the government, you will hear of those who have fled the country to escape imprisonment…you will even hear of those who have been disappeared. I cannot speak the truth or accuracy of any of this. What I have heard are second, third or fourth hand accounts.

What I have experienced first-hand is Rwanda (and specifically Kigali) today. I have visited government officials in their brand new office buildings, I have driven (been driven) on smooth roads, I have run on clean sidewalks and walked alone at night without fear, I have seen how patients are treated with care (and medicine…and new machines) in Kigali’s main referral hospital, I have met with investors and seen plans and blueprints for beautiful hotels and resorts around Rwanda. And I was impressed by it all.

This is not to say that everything in Rwanda is hunky dory everywhere all the time. Rwanda is a very poor country, with fewer resources and human capacity than Uganda, Kenya or Tanzania (in fact the country is soaking up talent from all over the world in its hospitals, universities, etc). Many people are concerned about what will happen in the next 5 or 10 years. They wonder whether Kagame will step down, or if he will become like so many African leaders before him, refusing to relinquish power. Being the optimistic person that I am, I of course am leaning towards the former. But these are critical years for Rwanda. These are the years in which systems, institutions, and capacity must be built if peace and development are to continue in an era post-Kagame or even post-RPF.

What I can say is that it is almost impossible (if not entirely impossible) to put oneself in Kagame’s shoes. He has and will make mistakes, as any leader will do. But I think as outside observers to Rwanda’s development we should ensure that in being critical, we are not unwittingly being hypocritical instead.