‘Politics without Development’ is the biggest threat to stability in Rwanda

This week in Kigali a seminar on Preventing Youth Radicalization in East Africa was being organized by the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, a research unit of the US Department for Defense, jointly with the Government of Rwanda.
Dr Jean-Paul Kimonyo
Dr Jean-Paul Kimonyo

This week in Kigali a seminar on Preventing Youth Radicalization in East Africa was being organized by the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, a research unit of the US Department for Defense, jointly with the Government of Rwanda.  This is a good opportunity to come back to an ambitious report Rwanda. Assessing Risks to Stability published in June 2012 by another US strategic think tank, the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The study was commissioned by AFRICOM as part of a series examining the risks of instability in 10 African countries over the next decade.  This project was initiated after the revolutions and upheavals in the North Africa and the Middle East broke out and sought to have a “hard look” at underlying social, economic, and political conditions that have the potential to trigger major change and instability in Africa.

The report identifies three main sources of future instability. First, the Rwandan Government’s  inability to manage political competition within a democratic framework that may ultimately radicalize opponents who have no legitimate means to challenge the regime; second, the government’s  strategy of “development without politics” leaves the country vulnerable to economic shocks, possible setbacks and growing economic inequality ; and third, the continuing Rwanda’s involvement in Democratic Republic of Congo.   Many indicators already show a strong and continuing improvement in the relationship between the two countries, I will not dwell on the last point.

The report on Rwanda draws well the historical context of the post genocide reconstruction but fails to substantively facture this context in the analysis. Departing from the usual human rights oriented analysis predicting since July 1994 the imminent collapse of the country, the report introduces the interesting notion of resources as means and capacity for overcoming some of the challenges they identify but ends up predicting an inescapable failure if untamed competitive politics is not allowed;  while itself  identifies a faulty political culture at the root of Rwanda’s past descent into mayhem. How do you rebuild a country and reconcile its society after a total genocide when the undemocratic political culture that led to the catastrophe in the first place is still deeply rooted in the society and when the country’s economic foundation, which was maybe the strongest determinant for this violent political culture, collapsed well before the final outcome? The authors’ answer is quite astonishing.

Denouncing what they perceive as “development without politics” and adopting a pessimistic outlook at Rwanda’s economic future, they write: “although Rwanda’s economic performance has been impressive, demands for political change will likely outstrip the stabilizing or conciliatory effect of economic growth, which itself will be inhibited by the country’s size and resource base…”  In other words, because any attempt at turning around the economic base of the country will prove futile the solution is to let the population sort itself out of the crisis through politics. But in Rwanda we already had ‘politics without development’ when the population, hungry and angry, tried to find a way out of its desperate situation in the beginning of the 1990s through party politics a sizable number of people followed those who proposed the shortest way of resolving their survival challenges, those who told them to kill their neighbors. Unstructured political competition in a context of extreme poverty and anti democratic po
litical culture – intolerance, violence, ethnic sectarianism, – led in the late 1950s and in the 1990s to mass murder. Moreover, the background section of the report says just this.

The whole argument of the report rests on the idea that post genocide Rwanda is becoming more and more economically unequal and suggests this growing inequity will cause a forthcoming explosion of popular anger. .

As a matter of fact, the authors of “Rwanda. Assessing Risks to stability” referred to the UNDP Rwanda Human Development Report 2007 itself based on year 2005 data. These authors failed to grasp the changing nature of the Rwanda state since the middle of the last decade dedicated to both economic growth and the direct uplifting of the living conditions of the poor. Although no hard data on poverty has been produced since - they are coming out next month - a number of national programs could give them some clues on what is being done in fighting poverty. Proxy indicators like the disappearance of cyclic episodes of near famine in the East, the newly reached food security all over the country, the spectacular progress in fighting malaria and maternal and infant mortality, the universal health insurance, the universal access to basic education for both boys and girls, One Cow per Family program, Ubudehe social programme etc could also have been instructive. All these programs and their effects would have incited
the authors to be more cautious in their assessment of trends in poverty and inequality in Rwanda.

Recently, we are starting to get some new indications with a recent announcement by the Rwanda Institute of Statistics showed that poverty had been reduced by 11% since 2005. Poverty would have then evolved in the following fashion: in 1994 it stand at 77,8%, 58,9% in 2001; 56,7% in 2005 and around 45% in 2011. Decrease in poverty does not necessarily mean a lessening of inequality but, with a drop of 11% in six years, chances are that inequality will have diminished as well.

For a report with the ambition to be offer a prospective analysis, it made a quite poor job at reading Rwanda’s structural trends: it basically assessed the future of the country looking backward. It is indeed viewing Rwanda’s economy as still strictly based on subsistence agriculture and coffee and tea.  It also fails to grasp the accelerating diversification of Rwanda’s economy with, for example the shrinking relative importance of agriculture in the national economy representing in 2010 32% of GDP down from 48% in 1987 with industry standing at 15% and services at 47% in 2010 as well – and 8% of growth in 2000-2010.

As for the sources of foreign exchanges which before 1994 were dominated by tea and coffee, two new sectors are at the whelm:  tourism with $201M, a completely negligible sector before 1994 and, maybe even more interesting, remittances standing at $98M in 2010 where before the genocide the country was at war with hundreds of thousands of refugees it consistently refused to repatriate. More fundamental for Rwanda’s economic, social and political evolution, fertility rate fell from 6.2% in 1992 6.1% in 2005, 5.5% in 2007 to 4.6 in 2010… Not only is Rwanda entering in an accelerated manner in its demographic transition phase but it seems to have extracted itself from the Malthusian trap it had fallen into by the end of 1980s when , in the context of a mainly subsistence economy characterized by very high population growth, accelerated land fragmentation, disappearance of agriculture inputs, falling yields and a surge in hunger - according to the UN Human Development Report 1990, Rwandans were the second populati
on in the world suffering the most from hunger.

In their report, the authors suggest that Rwandans live in a kind of pressure cooker because of the restrictions made to their political rights and rights to freedom of expression. Fostering consensus and political cooperation certainly makes a – rather small - number of people angry, especially those who would like to bring us back to the sectarian demons of the past. But what do Rwandans themselves think of the political evolution of their country? It is important here to recall that ten years ago, when the country was preparing to end the political transition and adopt a new constitution in many parts of the country, people consulted at the grass roots level opposed the adoption of political pluralism arguing that during the democratization period of 1991-1994 political parties created violent anarchy in their communities and that it was those parties that mobilized them to participate in the genocide.

Lastly, one could consider a number of sort of votes where Rwandans do express their opinion. One is by voting with their feet with,  out of 3.5M 1994 refugees,  only between 70.00 and 100.000 still remain outside the country; second is by voting with their money with those living outside investing more and more in their country through remittances ; and third by overwhelmingly voting for Paul Kagame during the 2010 presidential elections.


Rwanda faces many challenges including possible future political crises like many other countries but more than many other countries it tries to build the conditions that will redefine these challenges and provide resources to overcome them. Only an ideological construction can bypass these elements of structural change so prominently visible in the country. The ideological inclination of the authors of ‘Risks’ that rendered them blind to the realities of the country they were supposed to assess is not without any resemblance with the one that led ten years ago to a disastrous war in the Middle East.


The Author is an dvisor in the Office of the President of Rwanda


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