This week, I have had the privilege to visit Kigali, Rwanda.
In 1994, up to a million people were killed over the course of a hundred days in a genocide that wiped out much of a generation of Rwandans.
Shockingly, the rest of the world sat on the sidelines and watched.
There is no 'road map to recovery' when it comes to moving forward after genocide, and the terrible events - that are still fresh and vivid memories - continue to have an impact on the day-to-day lives and thinking of the whole country: everybody in Rwanda appears to have lost someone, and some lost everyone.
However, under current President, Paul Kagame, there has been peace, reconciliation and justice. And it has somehow allowed the country to unite and move on, to stabilise, recalibrate and grow economically. So much so, that the story of modern Rwanda is truly remarkable, and deserves to be more widely told.
The international community still looks at the country with suspicion and disbelief, often bordering on alarmism. When I went to pay my recent hotel bill, my American Express card was automatically declined on the basis of a ‘suspicious transaction’. But the reality today is that Rwanda has low levels of corruption compared with the rest of Africa, and it ranks towards the top of the league in terms of transparency on the continent. Rwanda even has an Ombudsman whose duties include the prevention and fighting of corruption.
The country’s infrastructure is clearly improving, with better, wider access to safe water, sanitation and electricity, and in and out of Kigali ribbons of asphalt roads are connecting the country as never before. It has designs on being a centre for ICT excellence, and - though land-locked - a hub for regional trade. Although it has few natural resources, it does export tea, coffee and minerals, and has an eye on building its manufacturing capability. The national airline is growing, and has a modern fleet with excellent service standards. And Kigali is the cleanest African city I have ever visited, putting many western urban areas to shame. The poverty rate continues to reduce, and life expectancy to increase. Indeed, advances in healthcare, central to the country’s Vision 2020 strategic plan, have been described as ‘dramatic’, although communicable diseases remain a problem. Literacy rates are also improving.
Political organisations are prohibited from basing themselves on race, ethnic group, tribe, clan, region, sex, religion or any other division that may give rise to discrimination, and genocide ideology is criminalised. Gender balance is to the fore: Rwanda today is one of only two countries with a female majority in the national parliament.
From my, albeit brief, experience it is a beautiful and fertile country of hills and mountains, with diverse wildlife and massive potential as a tourist destination, not least for the chance to track mountain gorillas in the wild. Most important perhaps, at least for the international community, it is safe.
Challenges remain, and Rwanda’s recovery has not come without cost. Google ‘Rwanda’, and alongside endless articles about the genocide 23 years ago, there are stories raising concerns about democracy, free speech and human rights. Yet I would argue the country should rather be encouraged on its journey from hell, and with more support, applause and recognition for its amazing recovery from an event so seismic and base. The President has revisited, revamped and scaled-up his Vision 2020 as the speed and success of his reforms continue to make an impact. His efforts and those of Rwanda and its people should be celebrated, and the country reintegrated more deliberately into the international mainstream.