Rwanda: A Pleasant Surprise

The scene moments before was the definition of mundane. Then all of a sudden, pandemonium!  A group of previously peacefully (if mischievously) assembled young men and women around the main taxi park scattered in different directions. I thought it was a thief as is commonly the case in my home town of Kampala when such impromptu disturbances happen in a public space. On inquiring, I learn that it was a group of vendors illegally selling merchandise who had spotted a city law enforcement official. A few minutes later as I scaled the nearby elevation of well manicured lawny buildings towards the city centre, I could tell why. An unbelievably clean, organised city. I had never seen anything like it in Sub-Saharan Africa. And I have been to scores of African cities and capitals and cities, from Cape Town to Accra. I immediately pulled out my phone and messaged my pleasant shock to a friend from grad school who now works in the city. “This can’t be an African city,” I told him. “You haven’t seen nothing yet” he messaged back, using some old school Black American slang.


A popular park in the centre of Kigali

While the crazy U.S Election campaign between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton was raging towards its bitter end two weeks ago, I decided to take a road trip to Rwanda. Now, I consider myself closest to being Rwandan than most people. I am from Kisoro district, a stone throw from the border. I speak Kinyarwanda (well, to be specific, Rufumbira, which is more or less the same) and many Ugandans, as they are tribally wont, do call me, as they do other Bafumbira, a Munyarwanda. Technically they may not be too wrong. After all those who know the history of the area might remember that up until 1926, Bufumbira County, which makes up what is currently known as Kisoro district was part of colonial Rwanda.

And yet, where as I occasionally transit through Kigali’s airport as I crisscross East African capitals in my work flying the immensely pleasurable Rwanda Air, I had really never been to the country in any ‘proper’ sense. While growing up in my teens, I remember helping out my brother in his cross-border trade and had gone only as far as a few kilometres inside the country. Also as they did other neighbouring countries, the events in that country of 20 plus years ago couldn’t go unnoticed in my native Kisoro. We hosted 2 refugee families in our house in 1994, and of course were aware that an RPA contingent was based in parts of the Ugandan side of Mufumbiro ranges, because we used to carry supplies and logistics for them up in the Muhavura jungles in the dead of night, for a quick buck. Even a few bombs occasionally fell over the border and killed a couple of Bafumbira. We of course also heard of the horrors of the genocide, but to be honest, that’s about as much as I knew about Rwanda, outside of what I have read. And read I have. I do research for a living, and I write a great deal. My interest is in Governance and politics.


Downtown Kigali

Because of my work, and the historical connection I describe above, Rwanda is one of my interests. I have read the hallowing tale of Immaculate Iribagiza’s experience of the genocide,  Gen Dallaire’s ‘Shaking hands with the devil,’ Steven Kinzer’s ‘A Thousand hills’ biography of president Kagame,  (plus his later u-turn commentary criticising the president). I have followed news in the  region and Western press of happenings in Rwanda, most especially commentary on alleged authoritarianism of the country’s president. I of course religiously follow Andrew Mwenda’s sometimes effusive commentary on Rwanda too and the vitriolic response it generates from Rwandaphobics and Rwandasceptics (the latter are quiet many and for sometime, before my visit, I myself was in one way or the other). I have read, most of all, writings of western academics such as Belgian historian Prof. Filip Reyntjens, the provocateur whose commentary on the genocide, even before I visited the country I thought trod dangerously close to revisionism. I have watched numerous documentaries and movies on Rwanda.

And yet on my first REAL visit to the country, I discovered, in an instant that I knew next to nothing about post-genocide Rwanda. That the view of the country that I had significantly lacked nuance and context, two things as a researcher I pride myself in being an expert at, in the course of explaining phenomena.

I try to read everything on Rwanda from both sides: from the critics of everything ranging from how the clean Kigali streets are a ruse to hide the real ills of the country, to the alleged cruelty against vendors and other ‘undesirables’ of Kigali. I have read about the lack of real democratic space; and the astuteness of Rwandan leaders in pulling the country from near oblivion in 1994 to the  African economic success story that it is today.

In the process I have sometimes weighed in myself, especially in the comments section of Mr. Mwenda’s Independent newspaper, and his social media posts.

My visit to Rwanda has reinforced the journalistic instincts  taught in journalism 101: To never make a conclusion on something you have not experienced yourself, or before listening to both sides of the story. I won’t repeat that mistake.

I lived for nearly a year in a Ugandan village just to understand dynamics of rural healthcare delivery and what I learnt was shocking. Why not visit Rwanda, just a stone throw away, if only for curiosity, I asked myself before making a decision to go.

And so it was against this background that I decided that I would visit Rwanda to see for myself what was happening. Mine was no ‘fact-finding mission’ or even a journalistic sojourn, I must emphasise. Neither was the visit a research mission. I had neither the credentials nor the resources, connections, etc for such an undertaking. I just wanted to visit, as a tourist, which I did. And I took a road trip for that matter.

Some of the commentary on Rwanda that I had consumed before my visit is stuff of the legends:

-A Gestapo regime whose people are so scared of it that they will barely talk to each other in public, later alone discuss anything remotely related to politics for fear that the regime’s omnipresence, in form of spies everywhere, wiretaps, etc, is listening;

-An iron fisted president that tolerates no dissenting views, a facade of clean streets that is meant to blind people from the country’s political and economic problems;

-Street vendors constantly kidnapped off the streets in spectacular manner;

-Invisible government informers patrolling the streets, following suspicious people everywhere especially foreigners,

-Villagers that have been forced into submission and will not question anything the government does;

Some of the rumours are rather petty, such as one I had heard that you can’t take pictures in the country!

The reality

Well, I will not claim that in the one week I was in Rwanda I was able to establish the veracity of all these claims, or understand in full the country’s social, economic and political dynamics. But at least, for the start, let me debunk the last rumour by saying that I managed to take dozens of photographs in the places I visited with no one bothering me (Being a photography junkie, I never leave my camera behind.  I’ve actually ever been in trouble for taking pictures in an African city, but one of a ‘democracy’. In 2011, I was arrested and briefly detained by Kenya’s administration police for taking pictures of the sprawling Times Tower in Nairobi!)

What I can say for a fact is that on visiting the country, the little I saw and experienced convinced me that Rwanda’s reality, while complicated as are many national realities, is one that pleasantly surprised me.

The story of Rwanda offers real and significant lessons in how leadership at the top can determine what happens at the bottom, for the better.

Kigali, Africa’s city of light


I was shocked by the tidiness and organisation of Kigali on my first visit

You can imagine someone coming from Kampala, where directing someone to a certain place goes like this:

‘…when you get to a mango tree, turn left, then slope down, you will see a garbage heap near a clogged drainage channel. Then you give me a call and I will pick you up…’

Then you get to Kigali where most places have streets and buildings clearly marked with numbered plates, and with breathtaking cleanliness and organisation. It’s total shock!

Like I said in the beginning, I was a tourist whose mission here was no fact finding one. But once I was mesmerised by whatever I saw, my journalistic instincts kicked in and all of a sudden I had a longing desire to speak to people, to see if I can get some nuance to what I was seeing. Since I had no contacts in the government, and had deliberately avoided people I know that work here for fear that they may spoil my experience by giving me non-objective analyses of the Rwanda story, I sought out ordinary people.

I was nervous of course, given what I had heard on the state of free expression in the country as described above. Would they report to me to a nearby police station for being a foreign spy? Would I be arrested for asking suspicious questions?

All through this, I had one thing going for me. I could speak Kinyarwanda, almost as fluently as a native, so I used this asset as much as I could. I started with my taxi driver who took me around on the first day. I told him it was my first time in Kigali, so I had no idea where to start from. He was of course surprised that a ‘Rwandan speaking Kinyarwanda’ is visiting the city for the very first time. I gave him a short version of the history of the Bafumbira people I explain above, and left it at that when he seemed to somehow understand.

When he heard I was a first timer in the city (from the time we set off he was of course seeing and hearing how I marvelled at the clean streets, paved roads, organisation, etc) , he immediately changed course and said, “I will now take another route so you can see some really nice places.”

With immense pride, he drove me around the presidential palace, the police HQ, the HQs of a number of ministries, telling me which one is which. He couldn’t stop talking, as he narrated how these places were, a few years ago, just ‘jungle’ in his words.

But what is the price of all these developments, I hesitantly asked, expecting him to demur. Instead, he let loose: “We have a very strict government, especially the law enforcement people here in Kigali. But people are difficult and sometimes you can’t do much if you do not get tough”, he added. He indeed graphically described instances of city enforcement swoops but hastened to add these were necessary measures that had given birth to the city he was showing me, which, even though he admitted was too expensive for him, he was still proud of. He didn’t sound like someone scared of talking critically about the government.

Over the course of the next few days, I mostly walked around the city alone, or used bodabodas. This is when I had the most opportunities to speak with ordinary Rwandans. I sat in bars in Kanombe and shared ‘Primus’ and ‘Mutzig’ with local patrons.


A Street in a suburb in Kanombe, an ordinary residential area

You can blame the Primus, but when I instigated discussions on politics, these guys didn’t look like they feared to speak their mind. Some vented and said unemployment was way too high and that a small elite owned most of the wealth. Most, like the taxi driver did admit that Rwanda’s democracy has challenges but added due to the history of the country, it has to be unique and do things in unconventional ways to get ahead.

I spoke with a NGO worker, who is no fan of the government but said he appreciated that at least most of the government’s high-handed actions are by and large for the greater public good.

I ate ‘boilo’ (boiled potatoes or matooke mixed with meat eaten here for breakfast that I can equate to Uganda’s Katogo) with a trio of bodaboda cyclists in Iremera as they prepared to set off for the day’s work. Clad in their clean FERWACOTAMO branded reflector jackets (This is an umbrella organization for motorcycle taxis ), they told me of their hopes, successes and challenges. Many prided themselves in the work they do and told me they are able to support their families from it.

It was how the ‘Boda-Boda’ industry here is organised however, that struck me, given that I come from Uganda.

There is plenty of research that has been done on the role of urban associations, labour unions and other social organisations in Africa’s modern post colonial State. The reasons behind the shambolic nature of most cities in Africa’s hybrid regimes are rooted in the fact that the ruling governments run on the coattails of some of these associations to entrench themselves in urban and peri-urban areas where they usually do not have political support. As a result, these associations are given free reign to run loose and not follow the rules because they know the state will protect them.

In Rwanda, the situation is different. All ‘boda-bodas’ (and other motorists) follow the law to the letter. They carry two helmets, one for the driver and the other for the passenger and USE them at ALL times in transit. They follow traffic rules, and wait at designated ‘stages’/stops (I am using Ugandan speak now).

Now, this all sounds obvious and routine, so why did it strike me as a novelty?

Well, the reason is that I live in Kampala where the chaos caused by boda bodas is indescribable.

To give you a hint,  FERWACOTAMO (Rwandan Federation of Taxi Motor Drivers) can be equated to Kampala’s Infamous ‘BodaBoda 2010′, one of the boda boda associations headed by Mr. Abdullah Kitatta, the shadowy, powerful and brute ‘chairman of bodabodas’ whose closeness to police operatives makes him a feared figure in the Kampala Capital City Authority. Kitatta has opposed even mere registration of Boda Bodas in the city and is the sole reason why the City Authority could not ban the menace from the city centre. He boasts of holding meetings with the topmost political brass in the country, including Police Chief Kale Kayihura and president Museveni himself.


Kigali’s well organised, cashless transport system was one of my many shocks. Kigali Bus Services (KBS) uses a card that you tap onto a card reader inside the bus to pay your fare. 

Fearing to lose political support among the lowly residents of the city, Mr Museveni is always reluctant to allow his appointed City chief executive to crack the whip on bodaboda, vendors, and other groups in the city. In the aftermath of the 2016 Presidential election, Mr. Museveni complained that he lost Kampala to opposition firebrand Dr. Kizza Besigye due to the tough measures by the KCCA executive director against the vendors, bodabodas and other ‘small’ residents of the city.

Compare that to FERWACOTAMO, most of whose members are proud to obey the law and work hand in hand with city authorities in Kigali to ensure a well regulated transport industry. These members told me that while sometimes the tax payments they have to remit to the association and city can be a little high and indeed some default and are reluctant to pay (sometimes FERWACOTAMO have to crack down on the defaulters), most recognise that they have to do it because a clean and organised city is to their benefit too. I was stunned!

So there you have it. While the leadership of Boda Boda Associations in Uganda strives to ensure their members break the law with abandon, mess up the city and are opposed to regulation of any sort, their counterparts in Kigali do the opposite!

This mindset (of collective responsibility) was all too common among most of the people I spoke with in Kigali. It appeared to me that this attitude is inculcated right from the top. As President Kagame is normally quoted as saying; “Do we need donors to even tell us that we should live in a clean environment?”

This was true even among the ‘undesirables’, a couple of whom I spoke with. I learnt that word from reports in the media of how the Rwandan security forces round up street vendors, sex workers and beggars and rock them up. From Human Rights watch, to western media heavy hitters such as the Associated Press and the AFP, to the New York Times, a lot has been written on ‘the price’ ordinary Rwandans have to pay for the city to be clean and organised.

I spoke to a blind beggar that found me waiting in one of the fantastic buses belonging to the Kigali Bus Services (More on this later) and a young man with a missing limb that I found in the city centre later. I had heard that the policy of the government is to help these people learn a productive skill so they have a sustainable livelihood than live on the streets. These people told me as much, and they said they were aware of that policy but that their needs are more immediate and they couldn’t help themselves but come to the streets to beg or vend. Never the less they, albeit grudgingly, sounded like they extended goodwill to government’s development efforts. These told me they wouldn’t be here if they had alternative livelihoods and obviously welcome government initiatives to give them more sustainable livelihoods.

I later chanced upon a city employee who happened to be a friend to one of my friends living in Kigali. He put more nuance to the problem:

“Urban governance is complicated business” he said, and added that some people indeed would have to be ‘inconvenienced’ in the course of developing and organising a city.

I totally understood where he was coming from.

I have said as much from my experience researching urban governance, and have said (starts at 39:14) Kampala will remain a shitty city as long as politics continue to play a role in its administration.

He however denied reports of constant rounding up of ‘undesirables’, a term he furiously detested. Even where it happens, he said, people understand why the government does it and express no ill-will towards it at all.

Kampala is ‘better’?

On the third day, I bumped into a university student here in the aptly named ‘Kisimenti’ square (Isn’t this a place somewhere in Kampala??) who I had worked with when she worked as a research assistant on a projected I had worked on that was being implemented in both Uganda and Rwanda.

Over dinner at the immaculate (and, surprisingly, relatively cheap) Canaberra Cafe, she further regaled me with government efforts that she also said were tough but necessary. As she had been to Uganda a couple of times, I asked her what, if anything, she liked about Kampala.

“The lack of rules”, she shockingly told me. Everyone does what they want she said. I asked her how that can be a good thing. She said there is an allure to it, but also said because of that a lot is not done development wise. She later added that in Rwanda, everyone is aware there are some sacrifices to make for the country to move forward. Her response reinforced what I knew all along: The paradox of Democracy and development, Rights and progress in the African context. I was in for an education.

My education

What I learnt from all these episodes is an African nation defying convention; trying, despite remarkable economic and social odds to create real solutions to its problems. How anyone cannot see this is beyond me. I have lived in Kampala for 15 years. I can tell the difference. I imagine many Kampala residents would withstand the discomfort of even twice the tough measures Kigali is taking to be even half the way the city is.

From its strict enforcement of public order, no holds barred crackdown on corruption that has made the country one of the least corrupt in Africa, to ‘umuganda’ community cleaning initiative and ‘Imihigo’ (performance contracts in which public officials have to commit to result-based service delivery and performance), Rwanda is a country on a fast track.

There is nowhere in the world where significant social change has come without controversy. The men who built New York’s Sky Scrapers worked under terrible labour conditions. Much has been talked of the story of Singapore and its founder Lee Kuan Yew and I won’t be the first person to make parallels of that country to the story of Rwanda. Sacrifices had to be made there too.

What I know from studying history is that there is no transformative figure the world over whose policies have not been considered controversial one way or the other. Franklin Roosevelt’s ‘New Deal’ was denounced by critics who reminded him he was not a king. Rwanda’s ‘imidugudu’ (A habitat policy of rehousing which involves bringing scattered households closer together in organised villages), mutuelles de sante (social health insurance scheme) and other seemingly radical programmes the government is undertaking cannot be devoid of criticism, or even scepticism. This is the characteristic of all bold public undertakings.

Kagame’s critics, notably those who have fallen out with him argue that Rwanda needs strong institutions not a strongman. That is not an unreasonable argument. I however tend to see propositions by erstwhile government allies in Africa with a pinch of salt. In most cases, they tend to be opportunistic in intention, aimed to cater to their own political ambitions than serve genuine public good. Tellingly, Strong Leadership in Rwanda is working pretty well. I have done research in rural Uganda where frustrated locals tell me they have ‘too much freedom’ to the point where a family can have no pit latrine and local leaders will do nothing about it.

Rwanda beyond Kigali


Road to Ruhengeri. Rwanda’s countryside is an absolute beauty!

In order to avoid going away with a one-sided view of things, I wanted to get a taste of what the countryside was like, so I drove to Ruhengeri the main city of Musanze District in the Northern Province where the same cleanliness, order and organisation I saw in Kigali was evident. I talked to people here too, ate in the restaurants and played pool with youngsters in a bar. I desperately looked for a narrative that would vindicate what I had read about Rwanda before coming here, from the Rwanda-pessimistic and Afro-pessimism media. I didn’t find enough luck.

Yet my impression of people even in the countryside was not one of a people terrified of their government, but that of a people relishing their country’s ongoing experiment. Even those who criticised the government sounded like they had nothing but goodwill towards it.

Even more stunning was Kidaho a small town outside Ruhengeri near the Ugandan border, which used to be a small ‘trading centre’ decades ago when I visited it during my cross-border trade stint I described above. There is the stunningly beautiful Montana Vista Hotel that caters to tourists visiting gorillas in the nearby Virunga mountains. Similar hotels exist in Ruhengeri. Being near the national park and being the ‘foodbasket’ of Rwanda, the region is seemingly prosperous. The government has harnessed these resources far more efficiently than their counterparts have done over the border in Kisoro, another supposedly tourist town but whose administration is not anywhere near as efficient as in Rwanda.


I was told that there are far worse off provinces in the south and the East, but I couldn’t go to the whole country. I can only report on what I saw. Regardless, there is no country on earth that is uniformly well-off, so even though I didn’t see the whole country, I am confident to say that I was impressed with the little I saw.

Many critics of Andrew Mwenda say he is paid to say positive things about Rwanda. I do not know anything about that and I am not one to trade in conspiracy theories. May be he is or he is not and that is immaterial to me. What I can say is that after my own visit, you do not need to be paid to simply say what you see and experience. That something RIGHT is happening in Rwanda, and there is a lot to learn from it.

I was one of the skeptics of positive commentary on Rwanda. That was before I visited. I now have a more nuanced view of the country


After my visit, I wondered why there is too much vehemence in much of the Criticism of Rwanda, mostly from the Western liberal elite.

I have no full answers but from studying the legacy of European incursion in Africa and western scholarship of the continent, I have my theories:

  • Afro-pessimism: The first reason is that Rwanda’s success story shreds into pieces the view of Africa held by most Western academics and governments as a continent beyond redemption, WHATEVER intervention anyone in or outside the continent might make. The tribal fissures, corruption, ignorance are just too much for progress to be made, they say. Rwanda’s success bursts that notion spectacularly, with what it has managed to do in just 20 years.
  • Secondly Rwanda’s story is simply ‘too good to be true’ to some. How can a country, nearly incinerated into oblivion a mere twenty years ago rise so fast, a feat even far more stable countries have not achieved? Rwanda is basically a phoenix that has risen from the ashes of 1994. This has bamboozled many Afropessimists in the West.
  • A lot of Rwanda-sceptics, especially here in Africa, I have also learnt, are motivated a little a bit by jealousy. I know how I felt when I arrived in Kigali. “Why can’t we do this in Kampala?”, I asked myself, a question many Ugandans, including Andrew Mwenda have posed many times. It doesn’t look like rocket science. We certainly have more resources. We just need to enforce policy. A saying exists among young Ugandan intellectuals that Policies are made in Uganda and implemented in Rwanda. We tend to be jealous that Rwanda has succeeded with far less resources than ours. It is akin to the jealousy a big brother feels for his more successful kid brother. Rwanda’s improbable story elicits that kind of feeling especially in sceptics in neighbouring countries that have had longer stability, larger GDPs and yet its progress brings to shame their own.

In the west, it is no secret that most academics glow in schadenfreude when their theories of Africa’s hopelessness are vindicated by Africa’s political misrule and recurring ethnic and social crises. These are not ready to swallow their pride and admit, at the very least at least, that something RIGHT is going on in Rwanda. Rwanda’s success upends the long held and propagated view that western style democracy is the only and absolute prerequisite for development. After Donald Trump’s feat in America, (and the rigged system against Bernie Sanders) I even wonder how longer this view is going to hold among neoliberals, who are now in mourning in the wake of Mr. Trump’s success.

Does saying this mean Rwanda has no governance challenges? Far from it. No country on earth is without them. What I am saying is that every analyst worth their name must come to Rwanda with an open mind, before writing about what is happening there.

One of the virtues of honest analysis is for the analyst to admit that he was wrong when confronted with data and information they did not have before. I am happy to say that my past view of Rwanda was not fully informed. While I make no claim that I now fully understand the country, my visit has no doubt given me a more nuanced view of the country. I am certainly going back in the near future.

Take it or leave it, Rwanda is a classic example in leadership that other African countries can, and should learn from.


After my visit, I decided to proceed to my home town to see the old man. After crossing the Cyanika border into Kisoro, I rang my friend back in Kigali, to tell him about the immediate ‘back-to-reality’ feeling I had as my car started hitting the potholes again and witnessing trash everywhere. “I want to live under your ‘dictatorship’,” I told him. He burst into a long, knowing laugh.

Bernard Sabiti is a researcher of African Politics. He lives in Kampala. Contact ; Twitter: @BernardSabiti

4 thoughts on “Rwanda: A Pleasant Surprise

  1. I have worked in chahafi health centre iv and kisoro hospital but Rwandans who come with medical problems and some of them with absolute poverty you wonder why?the referral system in Rwanda could still be tricky due to insurance policy, one time camp in chahafi and kisoro hospital and get their views, you see when you look at growth in terms of GDP you can have one rich neighbour and covers you in terms of development and yet the wealth is in his hands alone, inquire why these people come with dental abscesses and to open ones mouth you have to be too kind. Go deep


  2. I have liked your writing, I read anything you write. Back to this write-up about Kigali and Rwanda, I request you do more research, you were too objective and honest in your writing, except you didn’t have time to unearth more. I still ask myself, why do we have Rwandan Refugees in Uganda even after all the nice things said about the Country. When I was in Kigali sometime in 2017, I was told those who ran away from the country are those that were hunted for their wrongdoings, maybe these ones couldn’t cope with the stringent regulations. I have been to our Refugee settlements, and what you hear is the opposite of what you discuss here. One gentleman told me what you see in Kigali is owned by members of the first family and their allies. Kigali is clean because the government “hidding” something.

    I think beyond the genocide, researchers like should try to research more about Rwanda.

    Thanks so much by the way.


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