September 16, 2019

Kwita Izina Is Less About Gorillas, More About Kagame’s Imagined Cosmopolitan Future Rwanda

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Before he attended the Gorilla naming ceremony- Kwita Izina, former Manchester United and Dutch coach, Louis van Gaal went hiking up the hills of Volcanoes National Park in and had an encounter with the rare mountain gorillas

Eleven days ago, on September 6, Rwanda hosted Kwita Izina ceremony. As has been the case for the last 15 years, the function was well attended with high-profile names in the world of diplomacy, politics, sports, music, fashion, money, and conservation.

In attendance this time was the Netherlands football coaching legend Louis van Gaal, former Arsenal captain and football legend Tony Adams, former Ethiopian Premier Hailemariam Desalegn, Princess Basma bint Ali of Jordan, Zimbabwean Billionaire Strive Masiyiwa, former Mozambique and South African First Lady Graça Machel, former Nigerian President Olusugun Obasanjo; fashion icon Noam Campbell, American singer and producer SHAFFER Chimers (or Ne-Yo), among others.

To close off the gorilla naming day, a concert was organized at the newly inaugurated $100m Kigali Arena at which President Paul Kagame, quite unusually, was the “Dancer-in-Chief” and America’s Ne-Yo the lead Singer as senior government officials and invitees danced the night away.

Three days later, on Monday September 9, Kwita Izina events continued with a “Business of Conservation Conference”; where, on one panel that discussed the politics of environmental change, you had individuals like Fred Swaniker, who is the founder of “Foundation of African Leadership Group”; Helen Gichohi, former President of “Africa Wildlife Foundation”; Paul Gomes, founder of “Constelor Investment Holdings”, former Ethiopian Premier Hailemariam Desalegn and a single Rwandan: Minister for the Environment, Dr. Vincent Biruta.

Was it a coincidence that the post Kwita Izina concert was organized at Kigali Arena and the conference graced by global leaders in different fields from different nationalities? Methinks NO. A little show off perhaps?! Or marketing? As in: “You see, besides Kigali Convention, we even have this”!!

Or, is it by mistake that Kwita Izina has, throughout the last 15 years, been attended by the ‘who-is-who in different fields and nationalities?

In the past, Kwita Izina has been attended by renown leaders, including, Bill Clinton, Microsoft founder Bill Gates, Hollywood actors like Natalie Portman and Isaiah Washington, Nigeria’s Ramsey Tokunbo; New York-based model and celebrity, Chloe Bello etc.

For the ordinary observers, Kwita Izina is about promoting conservation, celebrating primates like gorillas and nature as well as tourism. That’s also how it’s marketed by the Rwanda Development Board.

But anyone who closely follows this and other big projects underway or completed in recent years will notice a pattern that speaks to the existence of a bigger plan which, when everything finally coalesces, will produce a bigger national outcome.

For me, then, considered together with other bigger national projects, Kwita Izina symbolizes Kagame’s “imagined” cosmopolitan and developed Rwanda of the future than a celebration of gorillas and conservation.

Let’s illustrate:

First, every person invited to name a baby gorilla goes away not only with a sense of appreciation, but also attachment to the land and its beauty and likely to walk the relationship into the future.

This is illustrated by Zimbabwean Billionaire Strive Masiyiwa who wrote on his Facebook wall after naming a baby gorilla that: “When President Paul Kagame asked me to participate in a ceremony to name 23 baby gorillas a few days ago, I thought it was cool, and it earned some bragging rights for my youngest daughter amongst her animal-loving schoolmates…‘My dad went to name a baby gorilla’!”

Masiyiwa added: “I was grateful for the honor, and fully appreciated its importance from a conservation point of view. I did not realize at the time, however, that it would lead to one of the most profound entrepreneurial discoveries I have ever observed”. What he “discovered” is that Kwita Izina is a “Business model” that can be emulated across the continent.

This post also tell us that President Kagame is the “Inviter and Promoter-in-Chief” for Kwita Izina and other big conferences graced by high profile global leaders. How many can decline an invite from the head of state?!

Secondly, this new Cosmopolitan future can also be read in Kagame’s Presidential Advisory Council that meets twice a year. About 70 percent of this Council is made up of foreigners; including renowned academics, innovators, entrepreneurs, billionaires and global philanthropists. No other leader on the continent or elsewhere has such advisors.

Even Kigali City has such foreign and high profile expert advisors, including Singaporeans. This must be designed to get ideas from and learn from varied experiences to inform the City’s planning and development.

To this we can add the “Arsenal Promotion Deal” and the changing Kigali skyline with multiple skyscrapers, the $400m Kigali International Convention Center, high-end hotels like Marriott and Radisson Blu Hotel; national carrier RwandAir that has expanded and opened multiple routes in a short time as well as the $800m emission free and green-compliant Bugesera airport under construction.

If you add the project of “secondary cities” being built in every region of the country and RSSB-led estate construction in these places that’s changing the skyline in these cities; plus regional industries developed on the basis of each region’s specialized agricultural output and related economic zones, you start to see a probable development strategy from above that is unlike any other we have seen in the past.

And, normally, leaders on the continent tend to ignore parts of the country where leaders they deposed come from. But in Rwanda, the north and, northwestern parts of the country have received some of the best development projects, including the modern 150-bed Butaro hospital complete with neonatal intensive care unit, laboratory and operation rooms attending to over 340,000 locals and the University of Global Health Equity offering first class education in medicine with students from across the globe; beside the region having some good tarmac roads and agro-based processing industries and plants.

Yes, these medical and education facilities were achieved with funding and partnership from other well-wishers like Partners in Health, the Commings Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation together with commitments from individuals like Dr Paul Farmer and others. However, without Kagame’s personal involvement, commitment, support and leadership, nothing would have materialized.

Even the policy of opening borders to the world and welcoming 500 African refugees from Libya is informed by this “imagined cosmopolitan” future Rwanda.

In fact, even the World Bank has recently commented on this government-led investment and its probable consequence.

In its June 2019, report titled: “Rwanda Systematic Country Diagnostic”, the World Bank notes: “Public investment in Rwanda has also, it is argued, been skewed toward projects that aim to create a new reality rather than at alleviating pressing present scarcities”.

The report adds: “Both in public investments implemented through the budget and indirectly through public agencies, there is a preference for projects that create “new reality,” including expanding and upgrading modern transport and MICE infrastructure such as air transportation, hotels, and conventional infrastructure”.

What the World Bank is calling the administration’s drive to “create a new reality” is what we refer to as “Kagame’s imagined cosmopolitan and developed Rwanda of the future”; or Rwanda as it should be rather than it is.

Of course, these investments are done, as the World Bank observes, at the expense of addressing “pressing present scarcities” and is increasing the public debt and Kagame’s critics might say these are “vanity” projects that are constructed at the expense of addressing other major challenges like household poverty, unemployment, low wages and lack of jobs for the youth and university graduates, etc.

However, no one can deny that these long term investments are necessary or that, developmentally, they won’t have a huge impact in creating jobs; boosting the tourism sector that’s projected to raise $800m next year down from $400m; creating conditions to make the country the hub for conferences and service provision in the region and accommodating increasing rural-urban migration.

Even at a personal level, few individuals and families can develop if they don’t contain the consumption of today and save or invest for the future.

In other words, one could argue that since the country doesn’t have a lot of natural resources, its leaders have decided to invest where it could have a comparative advantages; which is in the service, tourism, transportation; industry, ICT and hospitality sectors.

Plus, when a country’s top leaders invest in the country and wisely use the country’s resources to do big development projects, sustainable development follows; especially when this is predicated on a political system supported and owned by key political players.

As we have argued before, this development from above is based on four ideas held by the country’s top leader: the first idea is that despite the genocide, “Rwandans aren’t killers; they are a resourceful people who can develop their own country and determine their destiny regardless”. The second is that top leaders, particularly those in the military can be and are the change agents and will help the country to develop. The third is that the government can be and is a civilizing agent and finally, that future, peaceful Rwanda won’t be based on the citizenship of the past built around “blood and soil” as was the case in the pre-genocide era, but on allegiance to it and serving it; regardless of ethnicity, race or place or country of birth.

In that sense, this “imagined cosmopolitan” future Rwanda aims to change the pre-genocide Rwanda that was inner looking and based on birthrights of Hutus, Tutsis and Twa. This new Rwanda isn’t even based on the old template of a “small, poor, land locked and aid dependent” country. It’s based on the post-genocide spirit of “We, Rwandans can develop and determine our destiny if we work hard; unite and invest wisely. We will show you [the world] that we can develop”

Since all communities and nations are “imagined” and since even development is first imagined before it’s put on paper in the form of policies and implemented as deeds─in the form of industries, skyscrapers, hotels, roads, communications networks, stock markets, etc, I believe Kagame’s “imagined cosmopolitan and developed” future Rwanda is possible especially if the momentum is sustained for another 20-30 years.

Now, some of Kagame’s critics may disagree; but never underestimate the power of dreams and what people can achieve when they put their money where their minds and mouths are. This lesson is learnt not only from countries like Singapore and South Korea, but also from the Emir of Dubai and Vice President of the United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoun.

Reflecting on how far his country has come, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid tweeted: “Dubai Metro was once a dream. I was 10 years old when I visited London in 1959 with my father who insisted to see a train’s cockpit. 50 Years later, Dubai Metro came true in 2009. Nothing is impossible if you dream it”

Now, Kagame’s imagined cosmopolitan and developed future Rwanda may never materialize; but no one will ever say he didn’t try. Nor that we didn’t tell you.

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