Say what you want about Rwandan president Paul Kagame . He’s certainly no saint, a Machiavellian military man to the end; politics and information are under the almost-complete control of his people. But he’s given Rwandans one thing at least, and that is pride. The streets are clean, there are ATMs that work and road signs and an increasingly strong currency, people keep their clothes clean and look you in the eye, people who are in the service of the state stand tall and wouldn’t be caught dead with alcohol while in uniform. Kagame and his people have taken the Spartan ethos of the rebel group which brought them to power, and tried to copy it in the whole country. No one and nothing is perfect, of course, but a lot of it has worked. Watching Rwanda climb in various development indexes has made a lot of Burundians envious.
I don’t think the secret to Rwanda’s relative success is some big obscure secret, or even the money from reselling Congolese products or Western funders stinging from post-genocide guilt. It’s not even anglicisation– although that has definitely helped Rwanda participate more actively in the global economy. I think a lot of it is pride.
Every time Burundians turn on the radio or open a newspaper, they hear their leadership begging for outside assistance, with hands outstretched and the financial crisis, the civil war which ended eight years ago and climate change being trotted out as excuses for the country’s slow development like so many rented babies . On n’a pas les moyens…on a besoin de ressources…on cherche des bénéfacteurs de bonne foi… A portion of the civil society, local NGOs and the general public have picked up on that. The best solution to a problem is asking for outside assistance, and if that doesn’t work, you just shrug and move on, all the while feeling sorry for yourself. Not everyone is like that, of course– many Burundians have a jaw-dropping ability to make something out of next to nothing. One of my favourite “Burundi Stories” is about the boatman who rowed Pierre and me across a lake in Kirundo (the north of the country); the boat had no oars, but the boatman jammed foam-rubber flip-flops onto his hands and rowed us across the lake and back with the strength in his arms.
However, enough people in Burundi have caught the defeatism virus to make listening to our own afternoon newscast a depressing experience, as spokesperson after spokesperson pleads for money to fall from the sky. “The government uses this question of resources as an escape hatch,” a rather disgusted disability rights activist told me in Buja.
In Rwanda, it’s different. It has to be more stimulating for Rwandans to turn on the radio or open a newspaper and hear President Kagame bang on about self-sufficiency (even though even he himself acknowledges it’s only partially possible in the short term) than to hear someone begging for money. When Kagame and company pass the hat, they do so mostly among wealthier Rwandans and Rwandans abroad, with programs like Agaciro (the name means self-reliance), a development initiative funded by Rwandans and “friends of Rwanda” inside and outside the country– basically crowd-funding a country, no donation too big or too small. “Contribute to building your own country!” is the message there. Kagame tells the US, France, Britain and regional powers exactly where to get off because he doesn’t feel the need to lick their boots for a few euros. Rwanda’s glass is half full– “We’re getting there, even if it takes us until 2045”– whereas Burundi’s is half empty– “We just don’t have enough.” OK, OK, only the most wide-eyed and naive observer would believe that Agaciro has *nothing whatsoever* to do with the reductions in aid to Rwanda after the UN reports laid bare evidence that Kagame and co. were supporting Congolese rebels, which Rwanda continues to deny. But still, the side effect of all this official rhetoric about self-sufficiency has been to build a sense of national pride, and you can’t buy that.
(Crossing my arms and waiting for RPF members to call me just another foreign Kagame hater, Congolese and diaspora Rwandans to call me an apologist and Burundians to call me a pessimist and a bad guest. But I’m just a call-it-like-I-see-it-ist!) If you see it differently, feel free to call it…