Kagame's legacy and mindset change

President Paul Kagame has led Rwanda for less than a third of its 52 years of independence. Yet he is the most talked about leader of the country.

President Paul Kagame has led Rwanda for less than a third of its 52 years of independence. Yet he is the most talked about leader of the country.

More has been said and written about him than all the other previous presidents combined. This is perhaps a measure of his significant place in the country’s history.

And so when in future the history of Rwanda is updated and the story of his administration is told, his place will occupy an important part of that history.

The writers of that story will certainly use some words (many of which we read and hear today) to describe the attributes that gave him that place.

They will use such descriptions as visionary, developmental, pragmatic, single-minded in the pursuit of national goals, freedom fighter, pan-African and so on.

Quite a few will say that he is controversial, at once able to inspire admiration but also attract condemnation.
But in all this, there is one attribute on which both admirers and detractors will find agreement – transformational. This one stands out and cannot be contested.

Part of this story is already well-known. There are visible signs that everyone can see, except the willfully blind or those blinded by loathing, or those who will deny anything that they have had no hand in making.

No one can dispute that this country was destroyed, rose from the ashes and, against all odds, now stands strong and healthy.

Nor can anyone question the rebuilding of a shattered economy and ensuring a steady, high growth rate that has placed the country among the top performers.

The never-say-die attitude of Rwandans is incredible and has baffled many. It has enabled a return of confidence and a zest for life that many decades of misrule, humiliation and finally genocide had sought to extinguish.

Once an unknown, isolated and poor country of timid people, Rwanda has now become an important actor on the global stage.

This is the well-known part of the story. The rest – why this remarkable transformation has happened – is less so.

Of course, the fact of the right sort of leadership, adoption of correct policies and so on, will be cited as the reasons behind it.

But an equally important factor in the transformation – Kagame’s ability to change the individual and collective mindset of Rwandans - has not got the same attention.

Yet this is central to all the achievements and will be a key part of his legacy.

Keen observers of Rwanda will have noticed that President Kagame has been working on changing the way Rwandans think and take themselves, their attitude to work and progress, and their place in the world.

Every occasion where he meets the people, be they the political and business elite, journalists, youth, women or rural folks, turns into an opportunity to change the mindset.

In this way, he has been able to effect a shift from a sense of dependency that fed on a feeling of helplessness to one of self-reliance; from one of entitlement to support from do-gooders to that of active producers of what they need; from a feeling of resignation to fate to the ability to make meaningful choices.

They have heard simple statements like the following that go to the heart: No one owes us a living; we owe it to ourselves. No country has ever developed on handouts, but on the hard work of its citizens. You cannot have dignity if you are fed by others.

The message seems to have been taken. Testimonies of people across the country tell of success that has come from hard work and taking advantage of available opportunities.

Stories of a one-time street tomato vendor becoming the proud owner of maize-milling machines in several towns or a fleet of lorries ferrying produce from the countryside to the cities, are no longer the exception. They are becoming the norm.

The attitude to work, especially on the land or in factories, is changing. It has become respectable and profitable. Worthwhile work is no longer to be found in government offices, but in different places.

This positive attitude of being active agents of their own change comes from a rejection of the feeling of victim.The consequence of this rejection and the resultant benefits from work increase the feeling of individual and collective self-worth or agaciro (dignity).

The mindset shift has not been achieved through preaching or haranguing people as happens in some other places. It has not been done through political manuals or sophisticated philosophical treatises.

The style has been rather conversational, an engagement with the people, an appeal to their sense of pride.

The conversations are motivational, challenging people to make their utmost effort to achieve set goals.

Sometimes they are like the pep talk of a coach sending the team out on the field with the instruction to do no less than come out with a win.

Everyone wants to win. That is how a sense of self-worth has been restored, and it is that that will make more transformation possible. Making this change happen will be a major part of President Kagame’s lasting legacy.


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