What is development? That is the million dollar question. Let me ask you, how many times have you heard this; “Rwanda is developing economically without doing so politically”? I know that my thoughts on this subject will bother some, but bear with me. I believe that you cannot have one without the other. It’s actually impossible.
When a person is poor, uneducated, unable to access medical care and take their goods to the market, can they then be participants in the political process? I think it’s impossible. Sure they can go to the polls and vote, but do they really even understand what they are voting for? I did my high school in a neighboring Uganda and as a result I saw quite a few school elections. What I learnt was that the fellow with the most money always won the election. At school, the bribes were sweet bananas, buns and alcohol. Almost every single time, the fellow who had the best manifesto but without deepest pocket lost. You know why? Because we were starved for good food. Posho, beans and maize porridge without sugar was our daily meal. What we were really doing was prostituting our votes to cater for our empty bellies. Do I think that we’d have voted a lot differently if we had full stomachs, yes. I’m of the opinion that, if you are poor, then you cannot really vote freely.
I write ‘freely’ because while anyone can vote, they aren’t able to really understand the significance of their act. By the way, this isnt just an African problem. Look at the United States. Why is it that the very poorest people, who are found in rural America, are more likely to vote for the Republican Party- a party that is opposed to universal healthcare and would cut many of their benefits? Why is it that, as Americans become more affluent and better educated they often change their political allegiances? Can that be merely a coincidence that richer Americans, more often than not, vote for a Democratic candidate?
Back to Africa, what I’ve observed is this: the political class looks at the peasants as an inconvenience that they have to bear with every election cycle. An inconvenience that they can placate with a few choice words and bribes. And because political power is often the only means to wealth, then they will do anything to get back to the table. Even if it means that people will die because, at the end of it all, these people are nothing but a means to an end.
But what happens when these people aren’t bribable anymore? When they are not worrying about where their next meal is coming from? When education isnt a gift given by a politician but a right that every citizen enjoys? You end up getting a more politically-savvy body politic.
Somehow, the conversation about economic versus political development has been high jacked by people who have never suffered poverty and the dehumanization it causes. Trust me, if you went to the village and asked someone, “do you want food and money in your pocket, or would you like to vote”, they would look at you like you’re a crazy person.
And honestly, there is some weird belief that many Rwanda critics have that there is no political development here. They are obviously not looking for the answers in the right place. Have they talked to the average ‘Joe Rwanda’? I doubt that.