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Paul Kagame: Transforming war-torn Rwanda from doldrums to limelight



PAUL Kagame towers in stature, but his achievements still stand taller. He didn’t lead Rwanda into becoming an independent country but has steered the landlocked East African country out of its theatre of death to admiration and a model state.

  He belongs to the tribe of African leaders that fought their way from the jungle to the corridor of power. Unlike other leaders in his league, he demonstrated leadership acumen in governance.      

  Pre-genocide Rwanda paints a contrasting picture of today’s Republic of Rwanda. In recent times, the country has been in the spotlight for positive reasons. Rwanda is a peaceful and secure African country where investors an live in and do businesses with ease. The country’s capital city, Kigali, is often lauded as cleanest and safest in Africa. In Kigali, cleanliness and order prevail and extend to other parts of the country.

  Rwanda’s success story may not have an end but begins with Paul Kagame’s vision of transforming the ‘Land of a Thousand Hills’ as Rwanda is known. It tells of the bitter beginning for young Kagame when his family in 1959, fled the ethnic cleansing in Rwanda to Uganda. As refugees, his family settled at the Nshungerezi refugee camp in the Toro sub-region in Western Uganda. He became an orphan before he finished his secondary school education.

  He began his primary school education at a school near the refugee camp and finished at Rwengoro Primary School, some 16 kilometres from the refugee camp. He had his secondary school education at Ntare School, an all-boys’ secondary school located in Mbarara District in Southwestern Uganda, but finished at Old Kampala Secondary School. The school is the alma mater of future Ugandan President, Yoweri Museveni.

  In 1981, Kagame alongside with his childhood friend, Fred Rwigyema, joined  Museveni’s, National Resistance Army (NRA), to push for the overthrow of President Milton Obote over the disputed 1980 general elections, less than a year after  Idi Amin known as he butcher of Uganda was overthrown; the elections ushered in Obote for the second time as the President of Uganda. Museveni had since 1973, under the Front for National Salvation- a rebel group aimed to overthrow the despotic government of Idi Amin, who had earlier toppled Obote’s administration to gain power. 

  The NRA, supported by the Tanzanian army and other Ugandan exiles, toppled Amin’s regime. That paved the way for the disputed 1980 elections.  In July, 1985, former army commander, Lieutenant-General Tito Okello, fell Obote’s administration. Museveni’s NRA overran Uganda’s capital, Kampala, on January 22, 1986, with Museveni taking charge of the country on January 29, 1986. Museveni’s struggle for power had Paul Kagame playing a pivotal role.

 Kagame cut his teeth in Guerilla warfare and military tactics under Museveni’s NRA, specialising in intelligence gathering, such that he rose to a position close to Museveni. President Museveni appointed Kagame head of military intelligence on assuming office, while Rwigyema held another senior military rank. Both Kagame and Rwigyema are from the minority Tutsi ethnic group in Rwanda. They joined the NRA primarily with a short goal of easing conditions for Rwandan refugees persecuted by Obote and on the long-term goal of returning with other Tutsi refugees to Rwanda to fight the Hutu-dominated Rwandan army.

  The duo joined the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), a refugee association that operated under various names in Uganda since 1979, while still serving under the Ugandan army. Rwigyema became the RPF leader shortly after joining the rebel movement. The two men built a covert network of Rwandan Tutsi refugees within the army’s ranks. While Kagame was a on military training in the United States, in October 1990, Rwigyema led a force of over 4,000 RPF rebels into Rwanda and was killed on the third day of the attack at the Kagitumba border post. Kagame returned to take command of an RPF that had been reduced to less than 2000 troops.

 Paul Kagame’s Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) entered power-sharing agreement with the Hutu-dominated Rwandan government. And by April, 1994, the power-sharing deal between the Hutu-dominated Rwandan government and Paul Kagame’s Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) began to break down as hardliners Hutus accused President Juvénal Habyarimana of conceding too much in favour of the Tutsis.

  Then, the shutdown of President Juvénal Habyarimana plane on the night of April 6, Habyarimana killed the president. The following morning, government soldiers assassinated Prime Minister Agathe Uwilingiyimana, a moderate Hutu leading to the country’s second civil war, signalling the mass killings that led to the Rwandan Genocide. The movie ‘Sometimes in April’ released 10 years after the massacre best captured the experience of human slaughter in the genocide that lasted for 100 days.

  The interim government on numerous occasions tried to establish a ceasefire agreement with the Rwandan Patriotic Front but insisted unless the killings stopped. On July 4, the RPF finally defeated the Rwandan government forces in Kigali ending the genocide. According to the Organisation of African Union enquiry into the Rwandan genocide, it estimates the number of people killed between 500,000 and 1,000,000. Seven out of every 10 Tutsis were killed.

  In the new government, Kagame became the Vice President and Minister of Defence, the commander-in-chief of the army. He was de facto ruler of the country. President Pasteur Bizimungu resigned from the presidency in March, 2000. After the election of April 2000, by government ministers and the national assembly rather than by a direct vote, Kagame was sworn in as President in April, 2000.

  On assuming office, Kagame launched an ambitious national development programme called Vision 2020. The programme consisted of goals such as good governance, an efficient state, skilled human capital, including education, health and information technology, a vibrant private sector, world-class physical infrastructure and modern agriculture and livestock; aimed to unite the Rwandan people and to transform it from a highly impoverished into a middle-income country. Mr Kagame sees Singapore and South Korea as model states.

  To Kagame, image matters to success, thus the need to start with the physical cleanness of the country that will impress on the subconscious of average Rwandan that will transform their mindset. Thus, the campaign for the right image of Rwanda began with monthly sanitation. Nigeria had earlier introduced such in 1984 but failed. The first sign that travelers see, as they step off the plane at Kigali International Airport, are a large sign declaring, “Non-biodegradable polythene bags are prohibited.” In Kigali, trash is hard to find, not even on the dirt roads outside the main arteries. Walking down the street with plastic bags could cost you more than $150, store owners found stocking them could face six to 12 months in prison.

  According to the former Mayor of Kigali, Fidèle Ndayisaba, “People working in a comfortable environment will also think better, image matters in economic development. We want to be clean in everything. To have people clean in mind, clean just for sanitation, and investors get clean money.”

  Rwanda’s economy has thrived since the dark days of genocide. Today, it’s one of the fastest-growing economies in Africa and the world. The country has nearly met its Vision 2020 goal, now aims to be an upper-middle-income country by 2035, and a high-income one by 2050. In 2009, the country ranked 143rd in the World Bank’s Doing Business report.

  The report states further that Rwanda ranks among the best globally in the Doing Business that in 2019, Rwanda sat 29th on the list, ahead of Spain, Russia and France. In the areas of registering property, it ranked second and third in getting credit. In registering property, the country has an efficient land registry where it takes seven days to transfer property and costs only 0.1% of the property value, the same as in New Zealand.

  Rwanda has become a model for other countries, even outside the African continent. Recently, Anambra State House of Assembly paid a working visit to Paul Kagame’s country. Some House Members were not happy that they will be visiting Rwanda of all places. Tim Ifedioranma, representing Njikoka I Constituency was one of the House Members that pressed that the House visits Rwanda. He knew the enormous progress the country has made in a short time.

“Getting to Rwanda, we discovered there is much to learn from them. I affirmed for the neatness of their capital city. In 1994, Rwanda had genocide issue but today, has an annual GDP of six per cent. Nigeria’s GDP ever since we got independence has not grown up to five per cent. Rwanda is landlocked with no important mineral resources. How were they able to from ground zero to get to where they are? That was what interested us in going there.”

  The technological savvy Kagame has put up much effort putting himself as detribalised Rwandan. He believes the key to reconciliation is continued economic development. According to BBC, he is one of the first African leaders to set up a website with a presence on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Flickr.

  He believes the information technology revolution has meant there are “few excuses” for political intolerance and poverty. A leading digital revolution in Africa, the country has one of the best high internet connectivity in Africa. Every transaction with any public institution such as tax declaration and payment, traffic penalties payment, business registration etc, is done online.

  President Kagame’s Rwanda has the best Africa’s gender-equality success story for high female representation in politics, education, and the workplace.   The country is the first in the world to have more than half of its government run by women.

  This reflected prominently in its parliament, where 61 per cent of members are women. According to the World Economic Forum, the country boasts by far the best record for female representation in parliament, with nearly two-third of its seats currently held by women. In the Global Competitiveness Report, Rwanda is the best place to be a woman in Africa.

  Rwanda is pursuing other innovative programmes. The country is about to build Africa’s first green city in a $5 Billion Project, which will be the third green city in the world. With this Green City project, Rwanda is showing its commitment to protecting the environment. The city will have environmentally clean mini-factories, all-electric vehicles, environmentally sustainable affordable housing, and integrated craft production centres.

  Another laudable project of President Kagame is to turn Rwanda into a technology hub. It has started this with the launch of its Physics Hub. The institute is known as the East African Institute for Fundamental Research (EAIFR), Kigali. The institute is under the directorship of a Nigerian condensed matter physicist, Omololu Akin-Ojo. As a university student in Nigeria in the 1990s, Prof. Akin-Ojo, learned to write computer code by hand, without ever having the chance to put the code into a computer. His job designation includes hiring full-time researchers and recruiting students for its master’s and doctoral programs in physics and mathematics.

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