It was just few years ago, when I heard the name Rwanda, an east African country comprising of three ethnic groups amongst them the dominant Tutsi minority and the majority Hutus. Like many Liberians, the best I could remember about this east African nation is the 1994 genocide made popular through two distinct motion pictures: “Hotel Rwanda and Sometimes In April.”
These motion pictures depict Africa’s worst genocide in modern times and the country Rwanda as the place, with an estimated 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus as massacred victims. The country has been beset by ethnic tension associated with the traditionally unequal relationship between the dominant Tutsi minority and the majority Hutus.
Reports say although after 1959 the ethnic relationship was reversed, when civil war prompted around 200,000 Tutsis to flee to Burundi, lingering resentment led to periodic massacres of Tutsis.
The most notorious of these began in April 1994. The shooting down of the plane carrying President Juvenal Habyarimana, and his Burundian counterpart, near Kigali triggered what appeared to be a coordinated attempt by Hutus to eliminate the Tutsi population.
But that was some 16 years ago and Rwanda is trying to shake off its image associated with the 1994 state-sponsored genocide; the government argues the country is now stable. Economic growth has exceeded 5% since 2001, this has been driven by coffee and tea exports and expanding tourism.
Today, Rwandan soldiers are serving in the United Nations on peacekeeping missions around the globe, demonstrating their commitment never again to return to such a dark past.
So, here was I on Sunday September 5, flying on a private Execujet with President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf to cover the swearing in for the second term of President Paul Kagame, the man who has been in control of Rwanda since his rebel army ended the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of people in 1994.
Mr. Kagame as former head of the Tutsi rebel force was sworn in as vice-president and defense minister in the new, post-genocide government in July 1994, but he was widely seen as the real power in Rwanda. In 2000 parliament elected him as president. He won presidential elections in 2003 and again in 2010.
It was a 6 hour direct flight from the Roberts International Airport to Kigali. We took off immediately after the brief ceremony marking the resumption of Delta’s direct flight from Atlanta in the US to Monrovia.
The distance was long, so was the various conversations on the flight, many centered on politics and the upcoming 2011 general and presidential elections-but hey, I had my ears shut to these conversations, so don’t ask me what I heard. By 22:20, Liberian time which was exactly 12:20 Rwandan time, we were hovering over the city of Kigali.
“Wow! Look at the lights over the city,” shouted one of the government officials on the trip. “It’s beautiful,” added another. We all peeped through the flight windows to admire the night beauty of Kigali from above.
“Liberia will soon get there,” President Sirleaf assured, as we disembarked from the flight and headed to our hotel after a brief welcome chart between President Sirleaf and the Rwandan Prime minister behind closed doors.
The President and party were also welcomed by Liberia’s Armed Forces Commissioned Officers on training in Rwanda near the Burundian borders. As we drove from the Airport, giant billboards lined the streets of Kigali portraying different images of President Kagame at various campaign scenes. Inscribed on these billboards were the advertisements of his swearing in ceremony on Monday September 6.
On Monday September 6, we drove in various convoys to the Amahoro stadium, where over 35,000 spectators were already seated awaiting guests and dignitaries at the inaugural ceremony. Outside the stadium stood thousands who had gone to the stadium but could not enter due to the limited seating capacity.
There were in all, a total of 13 Presidents, including Presidents Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Nigeria’s Goodluck Jonathan, DR Congo Joseph Kabila, Burkinfaso Blaise Campaore, Togo’s Eyadema, Kenya’s Moi Kibaki, Benin’s Thomas Boni Yayi, Malawi’s Bingu wa Mutharika, Central African Republic’s Francois Bozize, Chad’s Idriss Deby, Burundi’s Pierre Nkuruzize, Gabon’s Ali Ben Bongo, Ethiopia’s Meles Zenawi and Zambia’s Rupiah Banda.
The entire ceremony was colorful. Spectators sitting on the left wing of the stadium sat in green, yellow and blue representing the Rwandan national color. But they sat with each color spelling the name of the President Kagame, Paul Oye. The jubilations from the crowd said it all. It demonstrated how well Rwandans have come to love their president.
Indeed, they have every reason to love him. Over the past 16 years, Kagame has tremendously transformed Rwanda. Sky strippers are emerging around the city. New industries and hotels are springing up. Rwanda was rated #1 on the continental as a country wherein it is very easy to start a business, according to the World Bank 2010 doing business survey.
An evidence of the emerging industries in Rwanda is the Inyange Industry, where fruit drinks are produced and exported. Here four flavors are produced: orange, apple, pineapple and mango.
President Sirleaf visiting this industry said it was attestation of the success of Kagame’s regime. Rwanda, a country of 10.5 million populations has the highest number of female representation in Parliament on the continent. With a GNI per capita as US $410, according to the World Bank 2008 survey, the least civil servant earns US300 per month.
“What is your population in Liberia?” a Rwandan minister of state asked me as we drove back to the Airport. “It’s 3.5 million,” I replied. “Whoa, if we were that number and with the resources you have, we would have been like Singapore,” she said. “I can see that,” I said, but reminded her that we were just 7 years away from two decays of brutal civil war.
But in all fairness, Rwanda has become a model on the African continent in just a short while, from a collapsed state some 16 years ago. There are systems in place. Streets are kept clean and the currency Rwanda Franc has value in terms of its exchange rate with the US Dollar.
But nothing excited me more than seeing one of the Hotels which were in the Movie Hotel Rwanda- that is Mille Collins Hotel, where most of the genocide took place. Mille Collins is renovated and very attractive, opening its rooms and suites to tourists and investors.