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Development lessons from tiny Rwanda

Consider this country. Civil servants are required to report on duty at seven o’clock every morning. Cabinet ministers are given a modest amount by the government with which to purchase official vehicles, and an appropriate maintenance allowance; if they choose to use a large gas-guzzler, they do so with their own money.

This country’s capital city is clean, because an army of women cleaners sweeps it at dawn every day, and also because residents come out together once a month to clean it up. Plastic bags are outlawed. In this country, walking outdoors barefoot is an offence. So is the failure to maintain hygiene and proper sanitation in your home.

This is the only country in the world to have a majority of women in its parliament. The country is open for business and talent: investors and skilled workers are embraced. A universal health plan covers 90 per cent of the population. Education is a priority, and many foreign lecturers have helped to raise standards.

The internet is everywhere, as are cellphone networks. Cabinet members work on laptops when they meet. This country’s leadership deems its future to lie in technological uplift, in the acquisition of knowledge, in being an open and transparent society.

This country is enjoying 11 per cent annual growth in its economy, and its GDP per capita has tripled over the past fifteen years.

What is most remarkable is that this is an African country we are referring to, one that is just a short distance away from Kenya. This country is, of course, Rwanda. Its leader, president Paul Kagame, was present in Kenya last week and left a lasting impression on many a Kenyan – not least for his unassuming, no-frills leadership style. You might forgive a bit of swagger in a leader with all those achievements to his name. Not a bit of it: he is quiet, focused and utterly serious – a man on a mission, if ever I saw one.

Have you ever met Rwanda’s ambassador to Kenya? I have had that honour. George William Kayonga would be mistaken for a well-dressed young executive in any city – which is what he was in Kigali before president Kagame handpicked him to lead the diplomatic mission in Kenya. A more pleasant, friendly personality you are unlikely to meet – but one with all the facts about his country at his fingertips. I am told he is not unusual. Key appointments are made on the basis of what you can do, not what you are. If there is one thing for which president Kagame has no patience, it is “dull minds”. The country’s need is too big and too urgent to entertain mediocrity in key positions.

Now I have to pause there, since I come from a country where public appointments are made on the basis of ethnicity, political loyalty and personal interest. Ambassadorships, in particular, are reserved as a reward for tired and deflated loyalists, an agreeable tour of duty before they plummet into retirement and oblivion.

The personality of president Kagame cannot be divorced from what Rwanda is today. He travels around his country in a motorcade of three – one chase car ahead, one behind his official vehicle. His thinking is that his movements should be as unobtrusive and non-disruptive as possible – not causing a suspension of business for his people. He holds annual strategy retreats where key strategic goals are set and priorities defined. He pays for the best available advice: his personal advisors range from the world’s premier strategy guru, Michael Porter, to consummate networkers Bill Clinton and Tony Blair.

Kagame is one of the few African presidents to speak out against dependence on foreign aid, saying: “We appreciate support from the outside, but it should be support for what we intend to achieve ourselves. No one should pretend that they care about our nations more than we do; or assume that they know what is good for us better than we do ourselves.”

This is not a puff piece about Kagame and Rwanda. It is trying to draw your attention to the fact that great strides are being made not too far from these borders. Rwanda is not yet transformed; far from it. It is not obvious that the decades-old animosity between Hutu and Tutsi is eradicated. It is not clear that Rwanda would stay on this path even after Kagame. Rwanda remains a small, landlocked nation with few natural riches.

But there is every reason to be hopeful. Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore pulled off a similar miracle on the other side of the world, which serves as a model for Rwanda and its leaders. It is not natural resources that transform nations; it is enlightened leadership that ignites the spirit of the people to better themselves.

Lessons for Kenya? Do you really need me to spell them out? The lessons are in every word of what I have just written. Follow Paul Kagame’s self-reliance doctrine, and work them out for yourself.

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