It was the year 1994 when the Falcon 50 jet carrying Rwanda’s long-serving president Juvénal Habyarimana was shot down by a surface-to-air missile near the capital city Kigali.
No one could have imagined that the assassination of Habyarimana along with his chief of staff would spark one of the bloodiest and most tragic events in the history of the modern world: the Rwandan Genocide. The death of the long-serving president, who hailed from the Hutu ethnic group, ignited mass killings against another ethnic group, the Tutsi, unfortunately with an official go-ahead. This opened the floodgates for an orchestrated onslaught that claimed the lives of roughly one million people in 100 days, while the world turned a blind eye to the tragedy.
The genocide only came to a halt after the Rwandan Patriotic Front, led by a leader from the Tutsi, Rwanda’s incumbent president Paul Kagami, seized control of the country in July 1994. The year that saw bodies scattered everywhere in the streets and piled up in mass graves would become the baptism of modern Rwanda, however.
Some 25 years have elapsed since Rwanda folded that sad page of its history, and since then it has been riding on the crest of a wave, unleashing the potential of its roughly 13 million poeple whose country is now a model for the developing world at large. From scenes of torn body parts and abject poverty, Kigali has turned into the most beautiful capital city in Africa and the third greenest in the world. The country is also one of the fastest-growing economies in the Central and East Africa region, hitting some 6.1 per cent with $24.68 billion in GDP on a purchasing-power parity scale. By next year, the government targets reaching a per capita income of $900 to replace the earlier $290, a step towards getting the nation closer to the goal of a middle-income country.
Rwanda has thus carried the day, and it now has one of the fastest-growing information and communication technology (ICT) sectors in Africa. It is one of the few African nations that has installed a fibre-optic infrastructure covering the whole nation. Earlier this year, Rwanda also launched Icyerekezo, a satellite for providing ultra-high-speed Internet for schools in rural areas. Alongside Egypt, Rwanda is getting ready to launch a mini satellite, the RWASAT-1, a cube-type satellite that weighs less than one kg that when it goes online will send ultra-high-definition images to ground stations. Developed by three Rwandan engineers, the satellite will help the East African nation make precise decisions on crop yields and provide accurate data for soil moisture observation.
Rwanda has also recently stunned the continent by introducing the first-ever smartphone to be completely manufactured in Africa in the shape of its Mara phones. The Kigali-based Mara plant manufactures this smartphone’s components and has a capacity of making 10,000 phones a day. Another stunning fact about this African nation is that Rwanda operates drones to deliver medicines and other related lifesaving supplies to over 450 clinics and medical facilities in distant, rural and mountainous areas.
The country has thus distanced itself from the stereotyped image of Africa, a continent still sometimes unfairly connected with famine, conflict and abject poverty. The German automobile giant Volkswagen has picked Kigali as the destination for its pilot project for electric vehicles in Africa. The programme is a partnership between two German giants, Volkswagen and Siemens, with the latter building 15 charging stations in the Rwandan capital. Moreover, a local manufacturer has already started selling electric motorbikes in the country. Now Rwanda wants to cut its top import of petroleum products and aims to maintain its acclaimed reputation of having a green economy.
The Rwandans have shown the flag, and wonders have not ceased in this small African country. Getting off to a flying start, Rwanda launched the Kigali Innovation City (KIC) last year, an African version of the US Silicon Valley. Spanning over 70 hectares and at a cost of $2 billion, the project will be home to world-class universities (the Pennsylvania-based Carnegie Mellon University has already relocated there), technology companies and biotech firms, among others.
Rwanda is expecting some half a billion dollars of revenue out of the combined production of these firms. The KIC is slated to generate up to $180 million of ICT exports by 2022 and will hone the skills of Rwandan professionals and help create some 5,000 jobs in the sector. Moreover, by the year 2030 Rwanda will be 90 per cent self-reliant when it comes to skilled manpower in the ICT sector.
However, Rwanda is not credited only for such technological or economic achievements, because it has also been a model on the continent for women’s empowerment. The government has allocated 24 out of the 80 seats in the country’s Chamber of Deputies (the lower chamber of parliament) to women, the highest rate of women in a single chamber of parliaments across the world. According to the World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Report, Rwanda is one of the top five countries in the world for gender equality, beating such deep-rooted democracies as the United States, the United Kingdom and France. Rwanda has also joined a handful of countries, mostly in the West, where women hold half the posts in government.
But the most miraculous thing the Rwandans have managed to embrace is their ability to heal quickly and to learn a lesson that has cost them dearly – namely, that coexistence is a virtue that everyone needs to commit to. The achievements of this small African nation in such a short period of time should change the stereotyped news coverage of Africa in the international media, as the continent today is no longer a synonym for starvation and backwardness, but is instead a promising land of huge economic potential and progress.
Aware of this rising economic power in Africa, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi was the first-ever sitting Egyptian president to visit the country. In July 2016, he arrived in Kigali to participate in the 27th African Union Summit, and he also later paid a visit to the nation in August 2017, when he laid a wreath at the Genocide Memorial Centre established in honour of the victims of the onslaught against the Tutsi in 1994.
Al-Sisi’s visits were cornerstones in harnessing the launch of a giant economic platform that the Africans have been longing for in the shape of the African Continental Free-Trade Agreement (AfCFTA). This was officially signed in Kigali in May 2018 by 54 African nations, and it entered into force in July 2019 after it had been ratified by 27 nations including Egypt and Rwanda. This Continental Agreement will play an important role in furthering inter-African trade, given the huge $2.5 trillion combined GDP of its signatory countries. Enforcing the agreement will also help lure investments to the continent and create millions of jobs for its nationals.
These are incentives which the Africans must heed if they want their continent to grow as a major world power.
The writer is a former press and information officer in Ethiopia and an expert on African affairs.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 28 November, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.