Lessons from Rwanda: Leadership must run right from top to bottom

On November 8 and 9, the UN’s Peace Building Commission, the African Development Bank and the government of Rwanda co-hosted a high-level meeting on post-conflict peace building.Kigali couldn’t have been more fitting as the venue.
Frederick Golooba-Mutebi
Frederick Golooba-Mutebi

On November 8 and 9, the UN’s Peace Building Commission, the African Development Bank and the government of Rwanda co-hosted a high-level meeting on post-conflict peace building.
Kigali couldn’t have been more fitting as the venue.

Rwanda has transitioned rapidly from being the victim of one of the 20th century’s worst conflicts to a living example of how to overcome adversity.

Also, early this year Rwanda assumed the chairmanship of the Peace Building Commission. The former role rendered it a suitable source of lessons for other post-war countries. The latter provided an opportunity to fulfill a responsibility to the international community.

And so November 7 saw some big shots of the aid and development fraternity, who are the main bankrollers of peace-building efforts, descend on Kigali. Also in town were representatives of several post-war countries, including President Pierre Nkurunziza of Burundi, Prime Minister Guillaume Soro of Cote d’Ivoire, Deputy Premier of Timor Leste, Jose Luis Guterres, and others.

As is usually the case with first-time visitors to Rwanda, delegates who expected to find a broken country with visible signs of devastation and stagnation, instead encountered a visibly well-ordered country with its people, leaders and led alike, united by a collective desire to leave the ugly aspects of their history behind.

It was striking how long is the string of achievements the country has made in less than 20 years. The list extends far beyond the much-popularised “Kigali is clean” and “the police are not corrupt” narratives. Naturally, delegates were interested in both the big and small stories, but the really instructive are the large, complex ones.

Those interested in what had become of the genocide suspects of whom more than a million had been rounded up, learnt that only about 50,000 remain in jail, the others having been tried by the once highly controversial community or Gacaca courts and sentenced to community work or freed back into the community, where many live side by side with genocide survivors. The government had managed to strike the delicate balance between the imperative to deliver justice on the one hand, and the absolute necessity of pursuing reconciliation on the other.

Those with an eye on the place of women in society were to discover that a full 56 per cent of Rwanda’s parliamentarians and several key ministers and officials are women, and that these numbers have translated into tangible gains for women, including legislation guaranteeing their inheritance rights. They were also to learn of the rapidly falling maternal and child mortality rates, increasing use of family planning, and general improvement in reproductive health courtesy of, among other factors, the country’s highly innovative community health insurance (mutuelle de santé) with average national coverage of more than 90 per cent.

Those looking for lessons on rural transformation and its impact on quality of life and wellbeing were to learn about the raft of policies formulated and implemented in the agricultural sector, including land consolidation, crop intensification, distribution of free cattle to the poor, and the popularisation of co-operatives, all of which have turned once famine-prone Rwanda into a food-surplus country.

The sum total of these efforts and others not mentioned here has produced a population that looks to the future with hope and expectation and one with a stake in peace and stability, both of which are critical to protecting and preserving the gains they have made.

In their carefully modest way, Rwandans who spoke at the meeting, including President Paul Kagame, made a point of not portraying their approach as a model for export that the rest of the post-conflict world should copy willy-nilly. Rather, they preferred to tell their story and let whoever feels inspired, pick and choose what to take as transferable lessons. Nor did they forget to emphasise that the Rwanda story is “work in progress,” with the expected setbacks and lessons for them too.

Also illuminating were pronouncements by locally resident development-partner representatives about what in their estimation makes Rwanda tick. I had heard Rwandans say this on several occasions and so it wasn’t new. What was new, however, was the emphasis with which development partners repeated it.

They see the lessons Rwanda has to offer other post-conflict countries as boiling down to a few things that together constitute the foundation on which rapid, consistent, and sustainable progress can be built: Committed leadership; consensus about, and local ownership of, the agenda for change; institution and local capacity building, and the promotion and enforcement of accountability.

Leadership commitment, it was pointed out, must run from top to bottom. Leaders and the led must have a shared vision of the future and of how to get there. Institution building is critical, but there must also be adequate local capacity to make them function.

As one pointed out, Rwandans, not foreign consultants or donors, define and set their own priorities, which development partners are welcome to help them achieve.

And happy to help they are, for none of their money is diverted or stolen. That’s where accountability comes in. The challenge for those who would learn from Rwanda, it seems to me, is steep indeed.

This article was first published in The EastAfrican.

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