Can economic growth ever paper over hate and grievous bloodshed? Rwanda’s survival depends on that possibility. More than two decades ago, this small East African country witnessed one of the greatest crimes of the 20th century: Extremist ethnic Hutus murdered more than 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus, often by hacking them to death with machetes.
Now, the country is remarketing itself as the region’s economic miracle — the Singapore of Africa, the hotbed of a burgeoning services industry, a forward-looking country boldly pushing toward a cashless economy through financial technology.
Construction of new homes, hotels, and shopping malls is booming in Kigali, the country’s largest city and its capital. Demand for homes far exceeds supply, pushing up rental prices in prime areas of the city. Work is underway on a new international airport. “Rwanda is growing very quickly, and soon it would be like London,” joked Patrick Nkuba, a contractor, as he wiped sweat off his face at a jobsite in Kigali. In a recent visit, World Bank chief Jim Yong Kim lauded Rwanda’s management of its economy.
Is that enough? Those bloody 100 days in 1994 left Rwanda’s economy in tatters as the country, about the size of Massachusetts, descended into darkness. Schools, banks, and government institutions closed. City buildings, roads, and airports were destroyed. Looters ransacked businesses and government buildings. The government stopped functioning for several months.
The Rwanda Patriotic Front, an intervention force of Tutsi refugees led by Paul Kagame, defeated the Rwandan Army and Hutu militants and took power. Kagame, now Rwanda’s president, established a unity government led by Tutsi officials, in a rise to power that led hundreds of thousands of Hutus to flee the country for fear of retribution.
Since then, more than 1.7 million of the 2 million Rwandans who fled the country in the 1990s have returned. Moses Nshimiyimana, 55, is a home developer who left Rwanda in 1994 for London and returned in 2011. “It’s now secure,” he said. “We have a good president who loves all tribes. Majority of people who are returning back are investing in real estate because of the demand for space from foreigners and business people.”
Jane Tuyiringire returned from the United States and opened two new supermarkets. “Creating jobs for youths is very important,” she said. “It empowers the youths and at the same time develops the country.”
Women like Tuyiringire are key to the renaissance. Almost 64 percent of Rwandan legislators are women, compared to 22 percent worldwide, the World Bank reports. Unlike in many African countries, women can own land and can inherit land from their parents. Those social changes are part of a broader softening in Rwandan society that has helped the economy. Hutus and Tutsis sometimes work together as entrepreneurs, including in ventures that make home goods like baskets, handbags, leather shoes, and jewelry for sale to tourists and, importantly, abroad.
“We [Hutus and Tutsis] are working together to improve our own lives as one people,” said Cyntia Bukusenge, a Tutsi, who told me that her family was slaughtered by her Hutu neighbors. “We realized that some of the survivors had the skills to make goods from leather and jewelry. So we make and sell them to foreigners.”
To be sure, Rwanda is still poor. Most of the country’s 12 million people live in rural areas and work in subsistence farming. But the poverty rate dropped from 44 percent in 2011 to 39 percent in 2014, according to the World Bank.
The risk of the Rwanda model is that it works well only when people on all sides of deep ethnic divides feel confident that their leaders are wise — and that life is improving for all.
Human rights groups have accused Kagame of assassinating opponents, restricting the press, and other human rights violations. Paul Rusesabagina, the hotel manager who saved more than 1,000 people from death and was portrayed by actor Don Cheadle in the 2004 film “Hotel Rwanda,” has denounced Kagame as a dictator and mulled running for president. A new book by economist and former presidential aide David Himbara assails what the author calls “Kagame’s economic mirage.” The country’s economy, which had been expanding at a robust 8 percent, has slowed somewhat in recent quarters.
For everyone’s sake, the growth needs to continue. Recently, during the reconciliation of more than 1,000 genocide perpetrators to survivors — a public meeting where people come and confess how many people they killed during the massacres to receive forgiveness — the executive secretary of the National Unity and Reconciliation Commission, Fidèle Ndayisaba, called on Rwandans to embrace unity to boost development.
“This initiative is an effective move towards sustaining the achievements of Gacaca [local tribunals] jurisdictions which sought to achieve justice through truth and eradication of impunity,” he said. “This is the reason why Rwanda is growing very quickly. People are now concentrating on work.”
Tonny Onyulo is a freelance journalist based in Nairobi.