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The Shining Illusion Of Rwanda's So-Called Miracle

Fifty years after its independence, Rwanda is billing itself as the "African Singapore." However, the country's development is benefiting only an elite of the population, as disenchantment spreads.

Will Rwandan hopes scale up? (noodlepie)
Will Rwandan hopes scale up? (noodlepie)

KIGALI - Security everywhere, insurance for everyone, a crackdown on corruption, fiber-optics, electrification and a boom in public services: Rwanda is succeeding in selling the world an image of achievement it hopes will seduce international investors.

Since the 1994 genocide, aid has poured into the small country, which hopes to get back on track by integrating neoliberal ideals and "performance tests." Economic growth is currently at 8 percent and comes in third amongst African nations in the World Bank's "Doing Business' rankings, after Mauritius and South Africa. According to the Rwanda Development Board (RDB), only two administrative forms and six hours are needed to set up a business.

But is that enough to make Rwanda a kind of African Singapore? Can a relatively small country carry outsized economic punch?

In any case, the ambition is not lacking. With clean, widened avenues, traffic lights with countdown timers, brand-new buildings and giant advertisements, the capital of Kigali is clearly shining on the outside. And one look at the "master plan" gives an idea of the enormous projects that are part of the scheme: lakes, green areas with playgrounds, large towers, bus networks and shopping malls.

But does it have the means to fulfil its ambitions? The financial reality could become clear at some point, and with the investor countries in the midst of economic crisis, Rwanda should be considering cost-cutting. It is because of the crisis that the construction of the imposing Convention Center has barely advanced since 2010.

Meanwhile, other projects have gotten off the ground: the Kigali City Tower and the Grand Pension Plaza are currently in operation, but they are having difficulty finding tenants. The contrast is striking between the bustling market areas of Kigali and the sterile shopping malls, deserted and overly guarded. The real estate boom is still a reality in Rwanda, where it is possible to go to Dubai to buy construction materials and make an army of builders work for just 1,000 Rwandan Francs ($1.67) a day. On the other hand, Kigali has become inaccessible for the majority of Rwandans. Thousands of inhabitants have had their homes repossessed and have been relocated far from the city center.

Yet the countryside is lagging behind. "The feeling of frustration is growing up in the hills," observes An Ansoms, lecturer at the Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium, who in 2011 conducted an inquiry in six Rwandan villages. "The farmers feel like they're the losers, because they are not part of the development model which is presented to the world as a success."

"Better than Congo..."

Single-crop farming industries, such as coffee, tea and corn have been imposed upon them. "But the farmers need to expand their cultivation in order to limit risks and retain the power to feed themselves," Ansoms explains. As they have no choice but to deal with cooperatives, these field workers must sometimes pay more than they earn. "The investors are blind. They only see figures and rarely speak to the people."

In the hills, the price of construction is soaring and the houses must be built according to strict size regulations. Tiles cost far more since kilns were banned because of pollution. The result is that "young people don't have anywhere to build a family, and they become exasperated."

But how do you express that to a government that hardly tolerates criticism?

This "top down" government is starting to rub people the wrong way. "They're playing with fire," one disillusioned European diplomat says. "They are going too far, too fast. It is an infringement of human rights. Rwanda is governed by an oligarchy that is swallowing up all of the economy. When it occasionally surveys the population, it never takes into account their desires nor their grievances. It's heading towards a disaster. Universities are opening all the time, but there are no job opportunities. It brings to mind the Arab Spring..."

The supporters of the "Rwandan miracle" are left undaunted. "Here at least, it works, not like in Congo!" one official retorts.

Yet, some are accusing Rwanda of taking advantage of Congo's instability to discretely import minerals, which are then cleared for exportation, or to drain the country's lucrative tourism industry centred on the mountain gorillas. The price of entering the Virunga Park has also recently risen from $500 to $750. "The Rwandans' belief that they are the best makes them forgetful of other points of view," concludes a European cooperation assistant. "This could turn into a serious danger in the medium term. Nobody likes a neighbour that is so proud that they become scornful."

Read more from Le Temps in French

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