Rwanda finds regional integration sweet spot, beats drums for the 'developmental state'

If Rwanda could recover from a genocide that killed nearly one million people, and becoming an example, then "anyone can make it”

BAHIR DAR, ETHIOPIA: Rwanda says it has found opening up its borders to other Africans “extremely beneficial”, with fears of being swamped by foreign nationals having been overblown.

The country in 2011 notably scrapped work permit restrictions for Kenyans and Ugandans wishing to work in there, amid fears that the former would take all consultancy jobs, and Ugandans overrun its small business and unskilled sector jobs, its foreign affairs minister Louise Mushikiwabo said, a fear many other African countries tend to harbour.

But the actual experience had stripped away those fears, she said at a public speech at Ethiopia’s Bahir Dar University on Friday.

“The benefits have been enormous, including bringing competition and skills,” she said, adding that Rwanda was a “strong believer in regional integration.”

Part of that is necessity. As a landlocked nation opening up itself allows more access to the wider East African market, growing from its 12 million people to over 150 million people, she said, while it also lowered the costs of trade, for which transport takes up to a third.

The “developmental state”

But it is also borne out of historical experience, where confining its grievances within a small space had been detrimental to its growth, Mushikiwabo said in her lecture titled “The Developmental State in Africa: The Rwandan Experience”.

For Rwanda, the developmental state was about the government taking a strong role in meeting the people’s basic needs, she said, with the observation that development and democracy were complementary.

“In Rwanda, politically we have decided to govern by consensus. Our idea of democracy is Rwanda is providing for the people and giving them a say and a voice,” she said.

To achieve their economic goals, African countries must be bold and take chances with their decisions, including making those that many would see as impossible, the minister said.

“We believe in Rwanda that there is not an inherent link between Africa and poverty.”

The country’s Vision 2020 growth plan launched in 2000 aims to transform the country into a knowledge-based middle income country, in the process providing inclusive growth.

“We’ve done pretty well when measured against our ambitions,” Mushikiwabo said at the event that took place on the sidelines of a high-profile meeting called to take stock of Africa’s security challenges. 

The annual Tana High-Level Forum on Security in Africa is chaired by former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo. This year it is exploring ways of extricating the continent from what it says are externally-driven solutions to its security challenges.

  The Tana High-Level Forum on Security in Africa is chaired by former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo. (Photo/Tana Forum/Flickr).

Mushikiwabo said African countries should look to transpose indigenous solutions with dominant western-led security paradigms, alluding to the country’s much-documented Gacaca courts that aimed at reconciling Rwandans following the genocide using traditional approaches.

“After 11 years it has given us extraordinary results in a very difficult situation,” she said, even as she conceded it had not been “perfect”. “Reconciliation is a long, long journey, and sometimes it is personal.”

“[But] If Rwanda made it, anyone can make it,” she said, terming the country’s journey back from the genocide as one of “extraordinary choices” and sometimes “impossible solutions”.

The country’s media, which was in the wake of the genocide cited for its role, had also much improved, even if “now and then there will be a fight [with government], as long as it does not become a chronic issue.”

African countries should also take ownership of external aid partnerships she said, to counter a situation where they did not fit in with a country’s interests, leaving donors in the driving seat.

The country of 12 million is still faced infrastructural and ethnic challenges, she said.

Former Mozambique president Joaquim Chissano said the continent should look to treat its diversity—ethnic, environmental or cultural—as wealth and build on this towards the African Union’s Agenda 2063 goals.

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