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Rwanda's president leads an inspiring turn-around

Michael Fairbanks
A member of the President's Advisory Committee in Rwanda, Michael Fairbanks is co-founder of The SEVEN Fund, a philanthropic foundation run by entrepreneurs. His most recent book is "In the River They Swim: Essays from Around the World on Enterprise Solutions to Poverty."

President Paul Kagame invited Nicolas Sarkozy to Kigali last week. This was the first visit by a French president to Rwanda in a quarter-century. It comes just months after Rwanda joined the United Kingdom's Commonwealth of Nations and confirmed it would no longer use French as the main language in its primary schools, thus making a clear break with its Francophone past. As President Kagame has said, "Sometimes, the best strategy is reconciling what others believe are opposites."

Kagame's critics say that he foments the war in Eastern Congo and suppresses opposition parties. These views are inconsistent with so much about Kagame, and their attributions strike me as caricature constructed out of a collage of past African autocrats. I have known President Kagame since 2000 and seen him succeed where so many other leaders have failed. I find him to be as inflexible as a Jesuit on moral principles, even as he is open-minded and creative on tactics.

He applies this strategic, contrarian attitude to the environment, justice and economics; but in a very specific way. Paul Kagame builds modern institutions on top of traditional values.

Everywhere you stand in Kigali provides a long view of a peripatetic group of Africans, cooking fires, farm animals, and small, expertly cultivated farm plots, an immaculate nation. There isn't a mango peel on the roads. The president made the importation of plastic bags illegal; he wants clean streets, and the bags are not biodegradable.

The last Saturday morning of each month, bus service is suspended and businesses close. All citizens, irrespective of class, gender and including the president himself, sweep the area in front of their homes. The tradition is called Umuganda, and means, "We work together."

In the aftermath of the genocide, modern courts were incapable of handling the hundreds of thousands of perpetrators. International legal advisers were flummoxed. Kagame introduced the traditional Gacaca system to give the perpetrators of the genocide the opportunity to tell the truth and ask the community for forgiveness.

President Kagame even asked those who took farms from killers who fled to return them. Some say they will because the president asked them to do so; others say they will because God would not have spared them from the genocide to do otherwise.

The economy was a priority from day one. The economy shrunk for five years before the genocide. The president explained to me, "When economic scarcity occurs, human values deteriorate: with poverty comes mistrust, impatience, and intolerance."

Many international advisers told him that exporting green coffee was impossible because the Vietnamese and Brazilians were flooding the market, and Rwanda's logistics made it hard to compete. Still, there were 500,000 subsistence farmers whose traditions and lives would be ruined if Rwanda gave up on coffee. Kagame decided that Rwanda would invest in washing stations, advanced transportation logistics, and new distribution relationships. Recently, they exported some of the finest coffee in the world to Costco and Starbucks.

His own tourism operators insisted that he lower the price of admission to the game parks to compete with the Kenyans. Kagame, instead, raised prices to attract only the world's best tourists, and then built roads, lodges and invested in guides so they could create a one of a kind experience.

The facts speak for themselves: The economy has grown at an average of 8 percent since 2001, grew at 11.2 percent in 2008, and around 7 percent in the throes of 2009. More important, wages in these sectors increased by up to 30 percent each of the last nine years.

Kagame remembered his own situation in 1994 and didn't wait for the industrialized nations to move. He made Rwanda the first country to send peace keepers to Darfur. Working side by side, many of the Rwandan soldiers are children of either perpetrators or victims of the genocide. Kagame understands the implicit power of his successes; he told the Kenyans when that nation was tearing itself apart, "A responsible army will not tolerate another genocide," and fighting ceased.

Rwanda is one of the few nations in the developing world spending more on education than on the military. Kagame re-wrote the constitution such that his party cannot have more than 50 percent of the seats in parliament. Though Kagame is from one ethnic group, his Prime Minister and 70 percent of his cabinet are from the other. Thirty percent of elected officials at the level of municipality, parliament, and cabinet are required to be women; and a world-leading 56 percent of parliament is now women. The country is secure and the World Bank's Doing Business report recognized Rwanda as the greatest reforming nation in the world last year.

Nelson Mandela will go down in history for his capacity to forgive and work with his oppressors. Nyerere was a genius who built great social schemes while translating Shakespeare into Swahili. Kagame might find his place in history next to the Saint and Scholar. Ever the strategist, this contrarian is building a modern society on traditional values, and welcoming the French back into the heart of Anglophone Africa.

By Michael Fairbanks

 |  February 26, 2010; 10:24 AM ET |  Category:  Leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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"These views are inconsistent with so much about Kagame, and their attributions strike me as caricature constructed out of a collage of past African autocrats."

Why doesn't Fairbanks mention the fact that Rwanda's leading independent newspaper, Umuseso, is forced to publish in Uganda and its editor had to flee into exile because of intimidation from the Rwandan government?

Or that Kagame preys on fears of a second genocide to quash the political opposition?

When will the West get over its misguided fascination with Paul Kagame? Why are people so entranced by a man whose chief accomplishment is making the place look nice? And why is The Washington Post publishing essays by a shill for the Rwandan government?

Posted by: willywonka1 | March 10, 2010 8:41 AM

Though I marvelled at the unique style of presentation of this article, on a more serious note, it brings to fore two major issues:
(i)that leadership influenced by determination, innovation and dexterity has the greatest potential to partialy solve Africa's ardous challenges, and
(ii)that African governments predisposition towards becoming total socialist economies is unsustainable. A careful interplay of state interplay with greater free enterprise is urgently needed in Africa.

Role models and successful enterpreneurs such as Mr. Micheal Fairbanks need to be engaged to support leaders in Africa to unfold new ideas on enterprise development in the African continent.

PRE-Tertiary Experience: Ten years of development work experience

Posted by: personality_gh | March 8, 2010 6:04 AM

On closer look an informed person may find Mr Fairbanks's piece a flattery. I am afraid Kagame remains one of the worst dictators in the world.

An question to Michael could be: how long are you prepared to stay on board of the President's Advisory Committee in Rwanda? A long way to go, indeed...Kagame's president for life. The only insurance policy available to him to dodge justice for all innocent people he massacred in Rwanda and RDC.

Posted by: smithpiaf | March 4, 2010 2:05 PM

President Kagame is truly a revolutionary leader, having transformed Rwanda in 15 short years, from a country wrought with turmoil to a reforming nation making incredible economic strides. His contrarian attitude, creativity, and dedication to his people are all qualities to be emulated, and he will surely go down in history as one of the great political leaders of his time. Thank you, Mr. Fairbanks, for this beautifully written and inspiring piece.

Posted by: bu0517 | March 4, 2010 1:10 PM

Thanks Micheal Fairbanks for a great article that is both educative and fact based.
It is only when one knows where Rwanda was 16 years ago and sees what it has modestly achieved within this time that one can truly appreciate how remarkable Kagame is as a leader.
This is only the beginning for this small nation, that is becoming a shining beacon of hope on a continent that is continuously plagued by constant rife and poor leadership.
I hope more and similar positive stories continue to emerge from Africa.

Posted by: mwalimu2 | March 3, 2010 9:58 AM

I applaud the article and justify it in my 3 views as stated below;
(i) They give a true picture as drawn in the President's authorship "The Backbone of a new Rwanda". The article outlines that you must be human to serve humanity.

(ii) The article exemplary depicts the spirit of nationalism and elaborates that the President is not only the Head of State but also the icon of development.

(iii) The article empowers me in respect to the way I perceive the President and even consulted a project for Rwanda country courtesy of Rwanda Embassy {Kenya}, that was submitted on 17th July, 2009.

Thanks to God that the spirit of nationalism has started taking root in the continent [Africa] whose benchmarks are in Rwanda.

Posted by: hudsonlucky2006 | March 3, 2010 3:19 AM

I applaud the article and justify it in my 3 views stated below;
(i) They give true picture as drawn in the President's authorship "The Backbone of a new Rwanda". The article outlines that you must be human to serve humanity.

(ii) The article exemplary depicts the spirit of nationalism and elaborates that the President is not only the Head of State but an icon of development.

(iii) The article empowers me in respect to the way I perceive the President and even consulted a project for Rwanda country courtesy of Rwanda embassy {Kenya}, that was submitted on 17th July, 2009.

Thanks to God that the spirit of nationalism has started taking root in the continent (Africa) whose benchmarks are in Rwanda.

Posted by: hudsonlucky2006 | March 3, 2010 3:10 AM

President Kagame's achievements should be commended. As the article rightly points out the facts speak for themselves. However, as the article’s concluding remarks implicitly note, this story is not yet finished. President Kagame's legacy will ultimately be determined by how well Rwanda does without him at the helm. The values he is cultivating in Rwanda will become all the more critical in this regard.

Posted by: KJH11 | March 2, 2010 10:47 AM

I appreciate this article very much. We see so little of the individual experiences, priorities, and values of leaders - particularly those from interesting, faraway places facing challenges we can only imagine. Mr. Fairbanks has done a wonderful job of creating an empathetic portrait of a leader, conveying his successes while also giving a nod to his critics - but most importantly, helping his readers understand what we should learn from this man, and from his lessons.

Posted by: Ellz | March 1, 2010 11:49 PM

Wow! If this is not singing for one's supper, I don't know what else is! Michael Fairbanks is a member of Kagame's advisory board, he sure looks like he will be reappointed to that position on the strength of this nonsense puff piece he has just written!

I am suprised a few commentators here were actually wishing the US had an equally strong leader! I thought dictatorship is unAmerican?
Why would one wish the tribal domination, opposition repression and war mongering against neighbors that is the hallmark of Kagame be something to emulate for American presidents?

The long and short of Fairbanks' article above is "Paul is OUR dictator in Africa, all excesses will be forgiven and successes will be exaggerated."

Africans are much wiser than Fairbanks, realizing that a country that depends on aid for 70% of its national budget in NOT an economic examplar, but a welfare queen never to be emulated!
A dangerous aid junkie most likely to do its benefactors' bidding!

No wonder Rwanda has become an important hub for smuggled minerals transiting to western capitals, seized from the abused and robbed Eastern Congolese! Kagame has enough enablers in the most powerful country in the world. He allows and facilitates their intents in his 'hood, they in turn wash his dirty laundry in the big media!
Sweet deal indeed!!

Posted by: Batanai | March 1, 2010 9:26 PM

I am thankful for this article for two reasons. First, after reviewing even some of the data in the article, I would find it hard to argue that the turn-around in Rwanda during the past fifteen years is nothing short of astounding. Second, the views of Kagame that are highlighted by Mr. Fairbanks show the intensity required to turn-around a nation. Controversial or not, these efforts should be emulated, by some degree, in other nations.

Posted by: MB58 | March 1, 2010 5:31 PM

Congratulations to President Kagame for your value driven policies of your country.

I hope the economic growth that your administration has brought to Rwanda will be copied by other African Nations. Above all your educational spending instead of buying arms is an example of building a Nation that will produce future Scientist,
Engineers,Doctors,Lawyers and Business Administrators.
May I kindly suggest that you or members of your cabinate have a bi-monthly town hall meeting to get the views of your people and their participation in all levels of your policy making.

Finally to Mr. Fairbanks,this is an excellent report on President Kagame's leadership.Thank you.


Jasper Ojongtambia BS,MS,MBA
AEC Computer Division
Long Island,NY

Posted by: jojong | March 1, 2010 5:23 PM


Posted by: webster11 | March 1, 2010 3:48 PM

A bit short and to concise. Still I hope this article will incite many to analyze more in depth in a way to reduce the destructive effects of the (mainly) negative stereotypes about African leaders.

@s2000chops : I think you forgot to mention that most of the other independant parties decided to rally and support the candidature of Mr. Kagame during the 2003 election campaign.

Posted by: yvesgodelet | March 1, 2010 3:42 PM

Great piece highlighting a truly remarkable leader and nation. What a heart-warming and inspiring story of a nation building from its own ashes. A true inspiration.

Posted by: darshanik | March 1, 2010 3:37 PM

While Mr Fairbanks is no doubt making excellent contributions to the remarkable Rwandan recovery, his praise of Mr Kagame is too glowing by half. Mr Kagame certainly has been an effective technocrat, kept the all-important aid pipeline open, and improved the country. The differences between my visits in 2003 and 2008 were astounding.

His effectiveness as a leader is diminished, however, by his willingness to use nefarious means to avoid democratic accountability. My 2003 visit coincided with elections - and the closer the vote came, the more opposition banners and stickers disappeared from view. By the day of the vote, the country had a distinct one-party look.

To complete his nation-building endeavor, Mr Kagame will have to willingly step aside and let the Rwandan people take the reins of their government in a substantive way.

Posted by: s2000chops | March 1, 2010 3:21 PM

Not sure what I enjoyed the most.

1) A political leader with wisdom: "Sometimes, the best strategies are reconciling what others believe are opposites", the rewriting of the constitution to allow for the opposition, a recognition that "with poverty comes mistrust, impatinence,and intolerance", or,

2) The imagery: "There isn't a mango peel on the roads", "as inflexible as a Jesuit on moral principles", "modern institutions on top of traditional values" .

Thanks for demonstrating that you can weave rich data with good stories in a relatively short piece.

Posted by: eberg2 | March 1, 2010 10:26 AM

Rwanda's policies and priorities the current US government would do well to consider as model. The economic metrics and reconciliation efforts are certainly more hopeful. Bravo, President Kegame!

Posted by: ddebeck | March 1, 2010 9:50 AM

I spent (1989 - 1991) in Rwanda. They were a very earnest people - hard-working, frugal and patriotic. This article bears witness to those same values. Despite the break from its Francophone past, I can only write - Felicitations au Rwanda!

Posted by: jfCua | March 1, 2010 9:37 AM

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