A Westerner’s guide to writing an op-ed on Rwanda’s development

Before you set off to Rwanda from your regional bureau in Nairobi or Johannesburg, be sure to send a note to your editor in London or New York emphasising the importance of your mission. You could propose:

I am going on a mission to Rwanda where there’s a tremendous opportunity to dive into their development data and a wide range of issues of great importance, including their relationship with China and the scramble for resources.

The note should also be alarming! Suggest that “mysteriously, Rwanda is increasingly recognised by her peers on vital story lines such as leading the AU reforms, being a Launchpad for the AfCFTA, and next year, she will host the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in 2020 – all without proper validation from the powers that be!

While underlining your prowess, throw in a few examples of how you have covered African stories.

For instance, remind your editor how you reported on the Ethiopian Airlines flight ET302 crash and listed the countries of the victims in order of nationality, but excluded Kenya despite 32 Kenyans being on board – the largest group from one country to perish in the crash.

Or, how you deliberately pinned the crash on Ethiopian Airlines having a poor safety record even as Boeing was gradually taking responsibility. You can draw from many examples – that’s just one.

Once in the country, whatever you see, treat it like a mere smokescreen. In fact, as a Special Correspondent who is looking for the thrill of your journalistic career and are only too happy to chase sensational headlines, now might be the time to report the ordinary as extraordinary with sensational headlines.

You are, after all, a disaster-chaser whose mission is to show one side of the story. In fact, since you have no decency at all, make it catchy and drag the President’s name in it.  

On topics to cover, remember your goal. You’re not trying to tell the real story - your focus is the Pulitzer Prize – so act accordingly and make your reader vividly appalled. For instance, you can consider the subject of China and the scramble for resources.

Emphasise that Rwanda has embraced China and that this is very dangerous and suspicious as it doesn’t conform to the expectations of London, Washington, or Paris.

Don’t be afraid to portray Rwandans as people who cannot make their own choices including who they deal with and how.

In fact, use sensational statements such as “Rwanda’s sovereignty is at risk” or “90% of the Rwandan economy is now Chinese owned”. Don’t worry, your editor will not be interested in you producing evidence for this.

When it comes to reporting on Africa, these principles fall by the wayside. Just quote anonymous insiders and you will be good to go.

To sweeten your argument, throw in a few condescending statements that suggest you care more about Rwanda than Rwandans do.

Question whether they realise that they owe so much to China but don’t go into much detail; just make sure that your readers are not told about S&P’s recent upgrading of Rwanda’s rating from a flat B to B+ nor the oversubscribed Rwandan bonds that we are now used to.

Like your peers, don’t shy away from maintaining the tendency of portraying all African governments as incompetent. Don’t do yourself a disservice by comparing China’s involvement in Africa with say, Europe.

Instead, emulate Stephen Paduano and state that “Rwanda has plowed on with its participation in Chinese projects such as signing deals for China’s Belt and Road Initiative,” and completely avoid mentioning that in March, 2019, for example, Italy - a major European economy - signed up to the same initiative.

It would also be wise to side-step the fact that China is financing the expansion of the port of Piraeus in Greece and is building roads and railways in Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina and North Macedonia.

The icing on the cake will be the mention of a Chinese-trained Rwandan Army brigade. This, your readers in the West who include prominent politicians, generals, economists and more, must be alerted, borders the global contest with China and the constant push-an-pull of democracy versus authoritarianism.

Avoid drawing comparisons with the United States Africa Command (U.S AFRICOM) as your readers have no business in knowing that military partnerships with other countries also exist. Just make it about China.    

As for the characters to include in your piece, note that your credibility will be at risk if, for some reason, you consider collaborating with or relying upon a native academic researcher.

They know absolutely zilch about how Rwanda came from being labelled a basket case two decades ago, to a country that had made the most progress in its Human Development Index (i.e. 1990 - 2015), according to a 2016 UN report.

For this, it is best to rely on the views of Genocidaires in exile despite there being no interest whatsoever to be truthful about Rwanda. But then again, their views are in line with your prejudices; so go for it.   

Similarly, avoid policymakers. If you ask them about how the country has sustained economic growth of between 7- 8% over the last decade and a half, all you will get are facts and yet you and I know very well that facts matter very little to you, if at all.

Your best bet therefore, is to rely in part or entirely on characters like Filip Reyntjens - the Belgian political scientist who hasn’t stepped foot in Rwanda in the last 25 years.

You see, unlike a fully formed Western researcher with an envious intelligence quotient that is well above every indigenous who calls Sub-Saharan Africa home, the native researcher, notwithstanding his three-to-four decades of academic rigor while living and working in the native land, has near-to-zero competence of being able to contribute reasonably to your research topic, especially where first-hand account is a prerequisite.

What the old professor in Belgium lacks in first-hand account, he makes up with his pre-1994 nostalgia. Tap into that.

Finally, before you send your piece to the editor, ensure that almost all the information is heavily reliant on statistics from aid organisations. You don’t want to miss an opportunity to promote their work, and who knows, one day you may end up leading their Africa Communications Strategy. This is your audition. 

The writer is a commentator on political and socio-economic issues.

The views expressed in this  article are of the author.

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