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Rwanda: Central Africa's complicated success story

Rwanda was on top of the African news circuit today for having attracted the attention of German car giant Volkswagen, who announced this morning that they were going to begin assembling three vehicle models at a plant in Rwanda this year.

Ever since Rwanda swooned the international community in 2008 by becoming the first country to ban plastic bags, this small Central/East African country has featured in international news as a clean, well-run country that is doing the most to close it's gender gap and attract foreign investment. And in case you don't know how small Rwanda is, take a look.

Looking back at Rwanda's phenomenal growth over the past 23 years makes for great positive African news headlines, but what is true at one level is not necessarily true of the entire country. These enthralling stories about Rwanda may hide what's happening on the ground, and by merely presenting the country as a success we might be missing the terrible impact of unyielding, tight-fisted leadership.

Rwanda banned plastic bags in 2008.

Rwanda attracted international praise when it banned non-biodegradable polythene bags in 2008. The result? Kigali was named the cleanest city of Africa in 2008 by the UN Habitat, and Rwandans speak a lot to the cleanliness of the city on Twitter.

But according to a Human Rights Watch report from 2015 Rwandan police have been observed rounding up and detaining "undesirables" such as street vendors and the homeless in order to maintain Kigali's image.

Those arrested were reportedly kept in a detention centre without adequate food, water or medical care. There is also evidence of a damaging new black market that emerged in response to the ban.

If this reminds you of Operation Restore Sanity, the Zimbabwean military's attempt to drive street vendors out of Mutare and Harare's CBD's in December, you may have read about it here.

Rwanda's parliament has the highest representation of women.

Women hold 64 percent of seats in the lower house of Rwanda’s national legislature, the largest share of any country.​ It also, according to the World Economic Forum, ranks 6th in the world for political and economic gender equality. The country's 2003 constitution decrees that 30 percent of parliamentary seats be reserved for women and the government has encouraged girls' education.

This top-down approach to gender inclusiveness has resulted in great institutional success but has been slow to transform attitudes inside homes. Women continue to report that expectations of reservedness, servility to their husbands and the performing of domestic work are still deeply entrenched. Issues of female empowerment are still commonly regarded as too bold or Western by many Rwandans, even by female parliamentarians.

Rwanda is attracting some serious money.

According to chief executive officer of the Rwanda Development Board (RDB) Clare Akamanzi, in 2017 Rwanda registered investments worth 1.675 billion dollars. This is a huge amount, especially when compared to the 1.160 billion dollars it registered in 2016.

The sectors most appealing to investors were construction, real estate, mining and infrastructure, which in conjunction with manufacturing, tourism and agriculture generated 38 261 jobs last year.

Part of the reason for Rwanda's success as an investment destination is the control President Kagame has over the country. Rwanda is essentially a one-party state, opposition parties are harrassed and political freedoms are not well protected. President Kagame has gone to great lengths to ensure his authority, and while the country can present as very equal and successful this is not reflected in the lives of all Rwandans.

Rwanda is currently being touted as a model for Africa, and Kagame as a model for African leadership. We should celebrate Rwanda's incredible rise from such a terrible past. But we should be weary of legitimising Kagame's authoritarianism by trumpeting his economic and social successes. Rwanda's rapid development, like China and Singapore's, was achieved at the cost of severe restrictions to personal and civic freedom.

It is important that we understand how underdeveloped countries like these achieved what they did; by holding them up as examples we may give credibility to methods we would not be willing to accept in our own countries.

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