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Rwanda: Our history is not our future

Ashish J. Thakkar | 9/8/2017, 6 a.m.
As I watched President Paul Kagame take the presidential oath of office at his inauguration in Kigali on August 18, ...
Rwanda Flag Clip Art

As I watched President Paul Kagame take the presidential oath of office at his inauguration in Kigali on August 18, I couldn’t help but go back 23 years to a starkly different time.

My family— lucky enough to have British passports— were airlifted to safety from Kigali during the early days of the 1994 genocide against Rwanda’s Tutsi minority. I was thirteen at the time, and my family had found refuge in Hotel de Milles Collines, better known today as “Hotel Rwanda.”

If you had told me then that the country we see today was even the remotest possibility, I would have considered you delusional beyond help. The notion that I would spend a good part of my life as an adult investing and working in the country would have seemed no less far-fetched.

We left behind a failed state the world had allowed to disintegrate in an explosion of unfathomable violence. It felt as though nobody could survive what we had witnessed. As if hell had found its place on earth.

I don't invest in Rwanda out of nostalgia, however: I do it for the same reasons that lead entrepreneurs everywhere, to new and exciting markets. Strong, growth prospects; stable governance; low levels of corruption; and a young, growing and vibrant population. Harder to quantify, but just as important, is the resilience and optimism that permeates throughout the country.

If I relied on the assessment of London- and New York-based human rights advocates and breathless newspaper editorials, I would no more invest in Rwanda than North Korea. But this is a cartoonish misrepresentation of the country, as anyone who sets foot here can see for themselves.

What I witness first-hand every day is a nation unified behind a vision of progress and inclusion. I encounter government officials committed to expanding economic opportunity by facilitating investment, eradicating corruption and building capacity among its citizens. I see a health system that has become the envy of the developing world, resulting in a doubling of life expectancy in under three decades. Of course, there is much more to do, and no room for complacency. Rwanda is a work in progress, but progress has been real and significant. This is also the case with the rest of our continent— work in progress but with real progress despite the perception being put out there.

History is littered with investments in developing markets that fall over due to an insufficient grasp of local conditions. In the absence of such hard-earned knowledge, it’s human nature to fall back on old prejudices and faulty assumptions. In business, this is fatal— and you pay a steep price. But, for critics who lob grenades at Rwanda and Africa as a whole from the safety of western capitals, there are no such consequences. In fact, the more outlandish their fictions, the greater their reach. In business, we call that a perverse incentive.

Human Rights Watch (HRW), which today more or less operates as the unofficial opposition to President Kagame, did heroic work documenting the 1994 genocide. But then, as former U.S. diplomat Richard Johnson spelled out in a book on the subject, the organization’s longtime chief, Ken Roth, became inexplicably enamored with a critique of Rwandan democracy proffered by exiled Hutu Power elites.