Kagame to leaders, businesspeople: be bold, seize chances, make a difference

You may fault President Paul Kagame for many things, but detachment or distance from citizens cannot be one of them. He is closer to the people than most leaders I know. Few tour their countries as regularly as he does his, to meet citizens and discuss with them matters of development, experience firsthand the challenges they face, and where possible sort out problems their leaders may have either ignored or not solved to their satisfaction.

These visits, or Citizens Outreach, as they are known here, are a key feature of his leadership and a way of maintaining the bond and trust between him and Rwandans.

Usually he urges them on a particular line of development, encourages them to keep working hard, or reminds them that they owe it to themselves to enjoy a better quality of life.

In keeping with this practice, President Kagame spent three days in the north and west of the country on these familiar visits and met citizens and opinion leaders from five districts. He gave them the usual encouragement, but this time there was a difference. He had strong words for leaders who were slow to implement government policies, were negligent or did not deliver services to the people as expected.

He also had criticism for the country’s business people whom he said are too slow to spot or seize business opportunities which ordinarily they should be able to smell from afar.

These shortcomings are the product of a mindset and practices that are similar among civic and political leaders and business people. Both want to play it safe and do not want to take risks. But in this way, they slow down the pace at which the country wants to move forward and must be addressed to maintain the current momentum.

In the case of business, it is difficult to understand their aversion to risk since risk is a necessary consideration in any business venture. But because of this tendency to play safe, many of our businesses opt to invest in areas where returns are assured and quick. Investments whose returns may take upwards of five years to realise or are capital intensive are generally avoided

And so they invest in such areas as real estate or retail trade. Some are content to import merchandise from traders next door who have themselves imported the same from other countries, instead of getting them from the source.  .

Others prefer to put their money where some have already paved the way and shown that profits can be made. Not many want to be pioneers. Often this leads to crowding in the same field, competing for the same market and inevitably reduced profits. Small wonder, then, that some soon go out of business.

Many cannot sense the available opportunities at home or abroad. They must be pointed out to them. Or they want the government to do all the groundwork before they can put their money into the business.

Even when they have made money from the business, some are contented with that level of success, become comfortable and do not want to exert themselves any more. Instead of profit being a spur for more profit, it only seems to blunt further effort.

In other instances, success in one field leads to branching out into many, often unrelated, areas, and then they spread themselves thin in terms of finances and management, and fail.

Officials in public service are averse to risk for slightly different reasons. For many, public service is just a job. It is about what you can extract from it. You don’t earn more for hard work or innovation, or changing the status quo. It also is about the power, authority and privilege that this brings. And so, the bit about service, or the satisfaction from doing right and making a difference are low on the list of priorities.

As President Kagame never tires to say, this is not the kind of leadership that can transform the country and change the lives of Rwandans. Leaders for that are those that are prepared to roll up their sleeves and do some lifting, and get close to the people and not set themselves above or distant from them. They are those that can ‘feel’ how citizens live and work for and with them to change it.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Many Rwandan public officials and business people do a great job and the evidence proves it. This country was practically dead. It rose from the ashes and has made progress as a result of the hard work of Rwandans, often doing so in unorthodox ways, and because of the knowledge that there is no other choice.

The admonition to do more is because of the high standards already set. Anything lower is unacceptable and considered a failure. And so, public officials must take seriously the service bit about their work and business people must be bold and dare to tread where others may not have trodden before.

The views expressed in this article are of the author.