|THERE’S A HEATED RACE going on in East Africa, but most of us go about our lives oblivious to it.
The race is over which country will be the economic champion in the region in the next 10 years.
We are oblivious because the contest is largely invisible. However, you sense it immediately you set foot in Kigali, or Rwanda in general.
In 1994, when the ruling Rwanda Patriotic Army rebels won the war whose high (and tragic) point was the massacre of nearly one million people by the government army and its extremist militia, the Interahamwe, the bushes around the city were full of bodies.
The city, and country, was a wasteland. A putrid smell overhang its hills.
The bushes have since disappeared in what must be the region’s biggest middle class housing boom. In one area, Kigali has won the East African race decisively… it is the cleanest and least potholed city in the region.
A colleague asked our pretty and articulate guide the most ordinary question of the week.
“Gosh, this city is clean”, he said, “who keeps it clean, the City Council?” he asked.
The reply was quite unexpected. She hesitated for a while, then said: “Actually, I am not sure”.
In Kampala or Dar es Salaam, we all know who is responsible for the failure to keep the cities clean.
But to get to a stage where an African city is so well-kept people don’t even know who is responsible for it, tells you how much progress Kigali has made.
A tiny land-locked nation which lost 30 years in the genocide and has no natural resources, Rwanda decided it could only save itself by being the most competitive in ICT, and offering the best investment climate.
Every country says that, so the test is whether a country actually walks the talk. A story is told in Kigali of a recent group of wealthy Nigerians who came to town to buy into a major Rwandese insurance company.
Its leader said, shyly, that the one thing he would have liked to do while in Rwanda on the deal was to meet President Paul Kagame.
Kagame was told, and he sent word to the Nigerians that he would meet them.
They were asked to wait at their hotel for word on the meeting.
While they were waiting, they were told they had an important guest. Guess who shows up at the hotel room of the team leader? None other than President Kagame himself.
If the other East African presidents didn’t know it, Kagame has taken the prize, and if they don’t prevent him running away with it, this race is going to end early.
REFLECTING ON THIS, I REALISED that 14 years is a lifetime in politics. In early October, 1990, the RPA launched the armed struggle.
Within days, their campaign fell apart and they were crushed.
I was in the group of journalists that witnessed the final moments as the Rwanda government troops chased remnants of the RPA towards the Uganda border and finished off some who were trapped.
The troops posed triumphantly at the border for our cameras. They celebrated too early.
Four years later, a regrouped RPA was the “victor” if, indeed, there was one in the Rwanda war.
I was reminded that such reversal of fortune is not common. In 1979, as the Tanzanian army and Ugandan exiles closed in on Kampala and the city was being bombed, it became clear that the game was over for military despot Idi Amin.
Two days to the fall of the city, shells started falling on the Makerere University campus, which had remained the only safe refuge in Kampala.
International radio stations began reporting that the Amin army was planning to invade the campus and use the students as human shields.
That started off a stampede as frightened students took flight. One large group of students headed west, toward the industrial town of Jinja.
Some 30 kilometres along the road, an Amin civilian supporter had set up a one-man “roadblock” to stop people fleeing.
He was screaming Amin’s praises, and saying there was no precedent in African history of an army marching from another country and ousting a president in another.
Just then, a long convoy of over 30 cars led by machine-gun mounted Land Rovers, and communication vehicles, with light-armoured trucks bringing up the rear rumbled by.
The figure in the Humvee-type car in the middle of the convoy was unmistakable. It was Amin, waving and thumping the air triumphantly.
But to us, this was clearly a defeated man in retreat trying to save face with empty bravado.
However, his supporter didn’t see it that way. He went into higher gear, proclaiming that his hero was going to make the last stand that would scatter the enemy.
It was never to be. Amin died in forlorn exile in Saudi Arabia, on August 16, 2003.