It was a Saturday, 11.45am local time (0945 GMT) on April 22, 2000, at Amahoro National Stadium in Kigali, Paul Kagame, then Vice President, took the oath of office, ushering in a period of unprecedented renewal that has placed Rwanda among the new ‘African tigers’.
Six years earlier, more than a million Tutsis had been slaughtered by government militias.
It was the first time in the history of Rwanda that there was change of power without bloodshed.
The new leader, Kagame, said: “Peace and security have been established in the whole country. More than three million Rwandan refugees have returned home. Rwanda will become a nation that every Rwandan will want to live in.” In 2000, Rwanda’s total production or GDP was at Rwf 1.066 trillion ($2 billion), meaning that from 1962, when the country gained independence, to 2000 (more than 30 years), the country was only able to reach $2billion in GDP.
Speaking after the swearing-in ceremony, Kagame had the first task of assuring a hopeless country. “Poverty in Rwanda will not last forever,” he said in Kinyarwanda to tens of thousands listening intently. “Our first resource is hardworking Rwandans,” he added.
“We will build schools, especially in information technology, so we don’t lag behind. We will invest in electricity, telecommunications and roads and use what we have to improve national well-being.”
Not anything else but Kagame
At that time, the country was almost under UN Trusteeship, and internally embroiled in massive corruption. A $23m grant from the World Bank had disappeared in thin air. The Prime Minister, then Pierre Celestin Rwigema, all he could give back to the hungry Rwandans, were excuses.
Instead of concentrating on uplifting the lives of ordinary citizens out of bitting poverty, politicians were more bothered about how many Hutus or Tutsis were in government.
“Kagame is exactly what we need. Discipline and organization skills,” Andre Kimonyo, a 25-year-old student, told The Associated Press in the stadium then.
Global best-seller author Stephen Kinzer, and only writer of Kagame‘s biography, says Kagame is a man who has gone on to become the angel Rwanda has been waiting for.
Kinzer‘s book, “A Thousand Hills: Rwanda’s Rebirth and the Man Who Dreamed It”, released June 2009, describes Kagame as a man who emerges as a personable, tough-minded, extraordinarily disciplined realist.
Back in 2000, after the swearing-in, Kagame was in office on Monday morning. Three years later, Kagame won with a landslide victory in a presidential election.
Everybody wants a piece of Kagame
Kagame’s mission was to create a new Rwanda. Fifteen years down the road, Rwanda’s GDP is roughly $8 billion. The economy has maintained an average growth rate of 8%.
Kagame has propelled the country from the western stereotype place known for machete-wielding cruel beings, to one of the world’s most business-friendly hotspots. Under Kagame, one can register a business in the morning and open shop before midday.
Prior to that, one required nine procedures and about 223% of income per capita to start a business.
Registering property took more than a year (371 days). Transfer fees amounted to 9.8% of the property value. Today, registering a business and acquiring all legal documents is just a quick click on the web.
“The government’s commitment to business reform and their zero-tolerance approach to corruption is making Rwanda a better place to do business each day,” says former British PM Tony Blair on his website. “Combine that with the country’s continued economic growth and investors have a whole host of reasons to sit up and take note of this emerging economy.”
There is a $130 million fiber cable running across Rwanda, for 2,300km, linking up all the country’s 30 districts. On internet speeds, Rwanda is incomparable, regionally. South Korean tech giant Korea Telecom, has completed laying the entire infrastructure for 4G connectivity. The idea is to link the country to a global community and provide an avenue that facilitates an information communication-based economy. The immigration department is overwhelmed by tourists and business visitors coming to Rwanda.
The immigration office says 1,220,000 visitors were received in 2014 – bringing in some $305m in revenue, from a mere $62m in the year Kagame became president.
Apart from being the safest spot for vacation in Africa, RDB told KTPress “wildlife sight-seeing, especially gorilla and bird watching, and conferences draw the biggest portion of the revenues”.
Kagame’s achievements are endless. But there one popular opinion among the Rwandans that usually divides global perspectives on Rwanda and Kagame.
Years ago, a local businessman was contracted to build a road in Muhanga district, Southern Rwanda. The contractor would employ hundreds of villagers. Until the end of the project, however, no laborer had received a penny, KTPress investigations showed. The villagers were held on endless promises until the contractor vanished.
During Kagame’s “Presidential Citizen Outreach Program”, where Kagame moves down the villages to speak directly to locals in an unscripted format, the matter of the fraudulent businessman was raised.
Kagame, who is always complete, with his advisors, ministers, all top security chiefs, and heads of institutions, ordered that the matter be solved, with guidance. The problem was no more in a couple of weeks.
“You do not want to be absent when people are raising concerns on projects that concern your ministry,” one of the ministers told KTPress. Some ordinary folks have a description for Kagame’s way of doing things; Kagamecracy!
However, all these milestones have come at a cost, with critics saying Kagame is a dictator and an autocratic leader who governs with an iron fist.
One would ask, would Rwanda be what it is without Kagame?
It is hard to find anybody who answers to the contrary. Even his most ardent critics say Kagame had to be convinced to take the challenge of leading the country when it became clear much more was needed than just politicking.
“I personally never wanted to become President …” said Kagame in 2006.
And when he accepted, at least one thing synonymous to his success is the fact that his office is having a hard time coping up with the ever-flowing invitation letters to speak at global conferences.
To many a Rwandan, today, April 22, 2015, like all previous same dates since 2000, have been moments of celebration.