Dateline Kigali, Rwanda. 20 years ago, a news dispatch starting with this dateline sent shivers down the spine of editors, including yours truly. It meant that the story that followed would contain even more gruesome details from the terrible events that occurred then.
Today, that dateline indicates nothing more than the fact that I am filing this editorial from Kigali. I am here with the IC Events team for our annual African Banker Awards as well as to attend the annual general meeting of the African Development Bank.
This is my first visit to this country situated slap bang in the heart of Africa. Here are my early impressions.
As the plane I boarded in Addis Ababa prepared to land at Kigali airport, I saw a lush green undulating land below me. As we got closer to the city, the green was interspersed with pretty patches of striped bright green. It was like one of those mosaics made up of several pieces of cloth sewn together – but the dominant colour was green with bits of brown.
It was a beautiful and uplifting scene but I knew that all those patches and pretty strips represented farms from which the majority of the people make their living. This was cultivation at its most intense. Even from the air, it was clear that there is not much room, if at all, to expand.
The immigration and customs formalities, which are often the first point of contact between a visitor and a country, can form lasting impressions about a country.
What we encountered was a clean, airy space with smartly dressed officials, who contrary to the habit of their counterparts elsewhere, actually smiled and welcomed us.
This was a good beginning, but a major surprise was in store for me as we left the airport. With a population of almost 12m souls crowded in small country, I had expected the streets to be teeming with people and traffic and the usual jetsam and debris of urban life. Instead, the roads were almost empty and traffic flowed without a hitch.
But as you look around you at the carefully manicured hedges that line the roads, it takes an effort of will to remind yourself that you are in an African city and not in one of the more pleasant European capitals. Kigali is one of the cleanest cities in the world – and without any competition at all in Africa.
The city centre is being rebuilt Singapore-style with help from that nation’s now-famous urban planning company, Surbana. Singapore is itself now aiming to turn into a ‘garden city’ where greenery and flowers will predominate.
Pleasant and cheerful as Rwanda is, the question remains: what can it do to grow its economy? It is already doing well but to achieve the sort of growth that it will need in a few years’ time, what can it do to raise incomes all around?
Agriculture has potential but a limited one; industrialisation is still many years away; becoming a telecommunications hub for the region is promising but revenue generation from this source is also limited. I put this question to Professor Paul Collier, one of the world’s foremost thinkers on Africa, when I met him at a reception.
“Rwanda can make itself a regional centre of excellent governance,” was his verdict. He said that just as Mauritius had capitalised on its legal and administrative excellence, Rwanda can be the island of world-class governance in the fairly tumultuous ‘sea’ surrounding it.
As such, it could well become the destination of choice for investors wishing to send out feelers into the surrounding middle Africa. Like Singapore, it could, once transport links have improved, even become an industrial hub.
The potential is there and it is a real potential. The cleanliness of the city and the efficiency of its officials reveal a discipline and determination without which it is impossible to move beyond the mediocre. Rwanda can become outstanding – as long as politics does not get in the way, or more accurately, the wrong kind of politics. Only the people of Rwanda and enlightened leaders can make sure the latter does not happen. Will they?