The political thought of Rwanda’s president is a sensible model for much of Africa.
Rwanda is quite unlike any other African nation. Take a walk town a typical street of a typical town and you will notice pristinely kept flowerbeds, an absence of litter and smartly dressed people with shoes (which, by decree, must be worn). Overhead shuttle drones carrying blood and medicine to inaccessible rural areas, one of the first schemes of its kind. There is a blossoming tourist industry in Rwanda with its own national airline bringing thousands of tourists every year to the home of the mighty Mountain Gorilla. The coffee and mining industries thrive too and the Americans are taking interest in what could be a remarkably secure Central African security hub. It is hard to believe that little more than 2 decades ago, this tiny country was engulfed in a genocidal civil war which pitted Hutus against Tutsis and killed over 500,000 people. Much of this progress can be attributed to Vision 2020, a comprehensive economic and political vison which bears remarkable similarities to the African Socialist Ujamaa philosophy of the late Tanzanian president Julius Nyerere.
One of the most successful aspects of Vision 2020 is its emphasis on the cultural and social homogeneity of Rwanda. Gone is all talk of “Hutu” and “Tutsi”- quite literally. To even talk about one’s tribe in Rwandan politics is a crime and the topic is taboo even in casual chatter. Paul Kagame, the country’s president and architect of Vision 2020, took a DNA test early into his first term and greatly publicised the results. According to the test he was neither purely Hutu nor purely Tutsi. He was a mixture and this was proof to him of the unique Rwandan identity which he promotes. This attempt to cultivate a national identity is straight from the Ujamaa ideology which advocated a single Tanzanian identity based largely around the common language of Swahili. So just like Nyerere in the 1970s, Kagame today does not bemoan the legacies of colonialism and blame his countries problems on the fractious tribalism which the European powers created or at least failed to remove before independence. Instead he dispels this pessimism with a proactive strategy which values above all else the unity and homogeneity of the nation. This is an invaluable lesson for many other African states.
A second striking aspect of Vision 2020 is its reliance on a huge number of development plans which are launched and overseen by an unashamedly authoritarian government. Vision 2020 is driven by an army of technocrats who obsess over schedules, data and targets and who are themselves driven by the long term vision of the president- a vision too precious to jeopardise with the fluctuations and uncertainties of democratic politics. In order to ensure the success of this top down remodelling of his country, Kagame understands that pluralism must at times be curtailed. This is especially true of divisive political pluralism and he perhaps remembers the rival political organisations to which Hutus and Tutsis pinned their colours during the horrors of the 1990s. Nyerere too recognised the importance of an authoritarian state for his African Socialist agenda. More so than Kagame, he openly sang the virtues of the one party system in post-colonial Africa. In this respect, both Ujamaa and Vision 2020 are adaptions of Hobbesian political thought which stressed the importance of unity and stability over unrestricted individual freedoms.
Unlike Hobbes however, Kagame sees his agenda as laying the foundations for a future democracy in Rwanda. He acknowledges that democracy is the most intuitively just form of political organisation but he also stresses the strong consensus on which his current system is based. Most Rwandans still have memories of the genocide and so many are prepared to make sacrifices in liberty to advance safety, security and economic growth. Whilst they aspire towards democracy as an end goal they, like their president, realise the need for authoritarianism now and many fear what the country would come to if Kagame were to be ousted from power. So For other fragile and ethnically explosive African States, this political aspect of Vision 2020 could have similarly transformative social and economic effects.
What makes Vision 2020 more relevant than Ujamaa for Africa today is its acceptance of free markets and the international economy. Whilst some of Kagame’s political philosophy is based on Marxist principles learnt during his days in the Ugandan bush, his ideology is ultimately one of state nurtured capitalism. The warm welcome he extends to foreign investors contrasts starkly with Nyerere’s belief in an economically closed and self-sufficient Tanzania. Ujamaa failed because of external factors such as the 1970s oil crisis and collapsing commodity markets but the system had been decaying for quite some time and this can largely be attributed to shoddy Marxist economics. The most disastrous element of Ujamaa for Tanzania’s people was the “villagisation” of production which herded thousands of farmers into inefficient collectives. So Vision 2020 has a better chance of success because of its more realistic economic agenda grounded in an acceptance of capitalism.
Importantly, Nyerere’s presidency did not end with a bang. He retired voluntarily and presidential elections were held the following year. There was not the chaos and unravelling which many had anticipated. So there is no reason why the departure of Kagame should necessarily plunge Rwanda back into tribal warfare. Kagame could feasibly be succeeded by another strongman and after him another until the time is right for the country to accept democracy. But this is where Kagame must crucially learn from Nyerere and to an extent Hobbes. To stop any one strongman becoming a corrupt tyrant it is absolutely essential that all must be indoctrinated to the principle of the national as opposed to the individual good. Nyerere did this through free and compulsory education, a large part of which involved sensitization to Ujamaa. His willingness to step down so freely is credit to this philosophy and if a similar mind-set can be adopted by Rwanda’s politicians then there is no reason why Vision 2020 cannot be exported as a template for other troubled parts of the continent.