International capital investment will be vital for African development, but governance reform should be indigenously driven and not imposed by external actors, says Rwandan president Paul Kagame.
Mr Kagame, a softly-spoken former soldier, assumed power in 2000 and since then has overseen one of Africa’s – if not the world’s – most compelling stories of economic growth.
Since the turn of the millennium, Rwanda’s GDP growth has averaged more than 7 percent per year. In the past five years the rate of that growth had been increasing, hitting a high of 11.2 percent in 2008, until the effects of the global economic downturn began to impact on the country, curtailing growth to 5.3 percent in 2009.
Underpinning this growth have been sustained private sector reforms that have attracted inward investment into agriculture and telecommunications. The World Bank’s 2010 “Doing Business” report, which tracks global business regulation, put Rwanda at the top of the reform table, stating that Kigali had lowered more barriers to investment than anywhere else in the world.
It is this success that has elevated Mr Kagame to a platform from which he has been able to broadcast his message of self-determination with confidence and credibility. Aid, he has prescribed, is not working in its current form. It is through investment that the continent will develop, and the reform process that its governments undergo must be pushed by domestic factors, not by conditionality imposed by donors.
He acknowledges that the gulf between the perception of the continent and the reality on the ground is a massive challenge in terms of courting this investment. Rwanda perhaps suffers more than anywhere else in this regard.
In 1994 the country was torn apart by a genocide that left hundreds of thousands of civilians dead and whose aftershocks still contribute to ethnic tensions and instability in the region.
The tragedy also imprinted on the Western consciousness an image of suffering that still endures 15 years later. Bridging that gap is, to some extent, a domestic issue, he says, “But it’s also the task for those from outside to pick up the right signals and to change their own perceptions about Africa, and also about the kind of relationship that has to exist between Africa and the rest of the world.”
In a Financial Times article in May 2009, Mr Kagame condemned the “sentimentality” of the G20 and other multilaterals in their discussions on Africa, as well as the prevalence of the donor-recipient model in international relations with the continent. However, that relationship is already maturing, he says. “I think a lot is changing. The voices of Africa are becoming more pronounced. There is insistence on Africa being taken seriously by Africans themselves, and Africans are trying to assert themselves and not only say the right things but also be seen to be doing the right things,” he says. “I also see the emergence of a new approach and attitude from outside of Africa from the rest of the world. There are certain realities that people are learning from… people are discovering that on their side there are a lot of things they need to do, for their own benefit and for their own countries, in Europe or America.”
This understanding of mutual self-interest is increasingly significant not only between the continent and its international partners, Mr Kagame says. The growing potency of the African Union and regional economic bodies, as well as their apparent willingness to step in to resolve disputes, is an encouraging sign.
Mr Kagame’s Rwanda has made steps towards reconciliation with the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo. Kigali’s role in the region’s conflicts since the end of the genocide has been much criticised, but the past 12 months have seen an unprecedented degree of cooperation between the two nations.
Diplomatic sources in Kinshasa say that there is a strong sense of buy-in from both sides of the border, which suggests that progress is being made on one of Africa’s most intractable areas of conflict.
Mr Kagame sees this as symptomatic of the growing understanding amongst leaders and civilians that they have an individual stake in regional stability. “We are working together at government level and we are also encouraging business to happen across borders. I think the people of Congo are beginning to realise that indeed they benefit more by working with people beyond their borders, rather than keeping their problems to themselves or blaming their problems on outside [influences].”
The thoughtfully controversial stance on aid perhaps demonstrates the kind of interlocutor that Mr Kagame wants to become on the world stage: conciliatory in his willingness to take responsibility for regional problems, but similarly unafraid to pick up on what he sees as hypocrisy in Western discourse.
However, he seemed to break this façade recently in his public comments on Chinese investment into Africa. In an interview with Handelsblatt, the German newspaper, Mr Kagame was quoted as saying that China’s involvement was almost overwhelmingly positive, and stood in stark contrast to Western efforts.
Today, Mr Kagame insists that his support was not as unequivocal as has been reported, and he appears genuinely disappointed that the more nuanced message he favours has not come through. Instead, the comments have been built into a far less maturely argued controversy, with the president being cast as an apologist for China.
The recurrent criticisms of China’s human rights record and the notion that its lack of conditionality fuel governance failures in Africa were revived. Why, one accusation went, should Mr Kagame accept investments from China while China invests in Guinea and Guinea is in political turmoil following a coup d’état?
Notwithstanding the difficulty of establishing a causal link between Guinea’s troubles and China’s investment, Mr Kagame suggests there is an inherent hypocrisy in the suggestion that there is a choice between two opposing and mutually exclusive poles, whose approach is characterised by equally divergent views on governance and democracy.
“If that point was being taken seriously, China shouldn’t be allowed to invest in the West… or the West should not be investing in China because China is doing wrong things in Guinea,” he says with a faint smile. “My argument on this has been not to judge China or judge the West.
I want to focus on Africa itself, so that we avoid seeing Africa as not a viable or effective player in world affairs, and only to be seen either as a victim or a beneficiary caught up between other players.”
Africa, he insists, should not be the subordinate partner in African affairs. The debate over China’s disinterested approach to governance, particularly where it focuses on the perceived likelihood that African leaders’ ability to reform will be undermined as a result, is “very patronising,” he says.
Likewise, that reform should not be imposed upon Africa. “We’ve seen China invest in Africa in areas that are key to Africa. My concern is: how are Africans prepared to make good use of these investments for their development, by China or anyone else,” he says. “My thinking is not to blame China for this, or the West for this.
I want to start blaming [African countries] for not being … prepared to do their part and to benefit themselves and to benefit those who invest in them.
“What questions should China, or any country in the West be asking [when they invest]? The number one question they should be asking is: does it bring good returns for the investments that they are making? Now, if there are issues about governance and politics, they are free to ask these questions.
But tying everything to these questions that have been asked for the last 50 years I think borders on, or even goes beyond, hypocrisy and double standards.”
Mr Kagame’s message of investment over aid and profit over sentimentality does seem to be resonating with the private sector, and his vision of a new narrative for Rwanda – and Africa as a whole – has proved compelling to many in the development community.
Others, however, insist that economic reform does not translate into social reform, and that democracy and human rights remain off the table. Mr Kagame’s response is far more Washington consensus than Beijing.
“These investments also encourage positive developments, with more prosperity, with more wealth and more employment and more infrastructure and so on. Africa will develop and will take more control of its destiny, and governments will allow or even be pressured into allowing more freedom, more choices, good governance and democracy,” he says.
This Is Africa magazine (FT