Rwanda: From genocide to 'Africa’s Singapore'

April 11, 2019 18:46
Rwanda’s Paul Kagame has won plaudits for his audacious and determined efforts to pursue reforms and transform the nation’s economy. Photo: Reuters

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, during which an estimated 500,000 to one million people, predominantly Tutsi, were massacred by the majority Hutu, and more than two million fled the country amid the carnage.

While the horrifying memories of the 1994 mass massacre haunt the tiny African state even to this day, what is perhaps not so well known is the fact that the country has witnessed a remarkable economic transformation in recent years, and has become the most successful knowledge-based economy on the African continent.

Rwanda used to be a Belgian colony falling within the French sphere of influence before it gained independence in 1962.

However, as a resource-poor country that relied overwhelmingly on labor-intensive agriculture for GDP growth, Rwanda was at a huge disadvantage right from the beginning.

But the root cause for its poverty was undoubtedly the tribal tensions between the Hutu and the Tutsi, which finally came to a head in 1994 following a plane crash that killed the then Hutu president Juvénal Habyarimana, thereby triggering a 100-day nationwide bloody retaliation and ethnic cleansing mounted by the Hutu against the Tutsi.

Rwanda saw a dramatic plunge in population and GDP output in the aftermath of the massacre. However, the devastation of the country has, surprisingly, set the stage for the rise of another military strongman, the incumbent Rwandan President Paul Kagame, who swept to power in 2000.

After he took office, Kagame successfully scrapped the presidential term limits by holding a referendum. So far he has already been re-elected for three consecutive terms, and can theoretically remain in office until 2034.

Despite his authoritarian rule and relentless crackdown on political opponents, Kagame has remained supremely popular among the Rwandans over the years, not least because of his success in facilitating a national reconciliation among the various tribes following the 1994 massacre.

That said, it is Kagame’s bold and sweeping economic reform program, which aimed to turn Rwanda into “Africa’s Singapore”, that has truly helped him win the hearts and minds of his countrymen.

Shortly after he became president in 2000, Kagame officially put forward the “Vision 2020”, under which he proposed to develop Rwanda into a knowledge-based middle class country by 2020.

In the course of carrying out his ambitious plan, Kagame has sought extensive advice from experts from outside, including China, Singapore and Thailand.

As Claudette Irere, director general of innovation and business development at the Rwandan Ministry of Information Technology and Communications, has pointed out, her administration is well aware that the only way to truly resuscitate the national economy is by educating the average Rwandans about how to use cutting-edge information technologies in their everyday life.

Kagame’s audacious and determined efforts at drastically reforming his country’s economy did pay off. Between 2001 and 2014, the country recorded whopping annual GDP growth of 9 percent.

Apart from making an all-out and concerted effort to turn Rwanda into another Singapore on technological levels, Kagame has also been working aggressively to follow Singapore’s footsteps in another aspect: becoming a “garden city” in Africa by promoting green economy across the nation.

For example, a monthly and nationwide “house-sweep” has been mandated by the Rwandan government, not to mention a complete ban on use of plastic bags.

According to the World Bank's Doing Business 2019 report, Rwanda was ranked the world’s 29th and Africa’s 2nd easiest economy to do business.

As far as internet penetration rate is concerned, as of January 2018, Rwanda's 4G/LTE telecommunication network covered over 95 percent of the nation's territory.

Today, Kigali, Rwanda’s capital city, has become the tech hub of Africa.

A few months ago, the Rwandan government concluded a memorandum of understanding with Alibaba Group under which Rwanda will become the Chinese company’s first African partner in developing an electronic world trade platform (eWTP).

Kagame and his administration do understand the importance of not placing all their eggs in one basket. Apart from Chinese companies, western tech giants such as Google, Facebook and Amazon have all established foothold in Rwanda.

The 1994 Rwandan genocide was, without doubt, one of the darkest chapters in modern world history. Yet ironically, it turned out to be a powerful driving force in fostering national unity among the Rwandans, both Hutu and Tutsi, which enabled the country to rise again from rubble.

That being said, if the “Singaporization” approach can truly resolve the historical grudge between the Hutu and the Tutsi, Kagame would definitely go down in Rwandan history as one of its greatest leaders.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on April 9

Translation by Alan Lee with additional reporting

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Associate professor and director of Global Studies Programme, Faculty of Social Science, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Lead Writer (Global) at the Hong Kong Economic Journal