African colleagues have asked me why Rwanda, a tiny country of 12 million people, has more political opponents living in exile than, say Uganda of 43 million, Kenya of 50 million or even Nigeria with almost 200 million people? Why do you put politicians in jail?
I said to them that that’s the choice we have made! To sacrifice a handful of people for the survival of the multitude. If we could have our cake and eat it at the same time, we wouldn’t hesitate. I explained that while politicians were rich and untouchable in other countries, in Rwanda politicians aren’t rich and they are held accountable for their deeds.
I said to them while cabinets and parliaments everywhere are filled with male sexagenarians, milking the freedom they allegedly fought for half a century ago, in Rwandan government the age average is 35-40 and the gender parity 50-50.
I told them that civil servants in Rwanda declare their wealth annually to the Ombudsman and justify any new assets with evidence; that ministers make $3000 a month, are not rented a house, and take loans to buy a car.
I told them there are no ‘children of’, ‘relative of’, ‘wife of’… There are no ‘Veteran schemes’ nor ‘Comrades’ Economic Empowerment’. All Rwandans compete on equal footing. I told them that army generals’ hotels are auctioned, politicians mansions foreclosed; it is routine.
This obviously doesn’t sit well with everyone. I gave them the example of Diane Rwigara, the young politician who complained that her father’s business was being made to pay taxes, I mentioned a former chief prosecutor who took a loan of several hundreds of millions in the name of his unsuspecting old mother, living in the village. The man is an exiled politician today.
Beyond money, I described the journey of Genocide fugitives. I explained how after killing people in Rwanda, they reinvent themselves a political or NGO identity to avoid disturbance, because they know that in Europe politicians are above the law and NGO activists are holier than though.
But that doesn’t save them; From marching in tropical forests – in DR Congo, to marching with NGOs – in European capitals, to being marched on Interpol’s most wanted list, to arrest and marched back to Rwanda: End of the line! Nina Simone’s song comes to mind: ‘Sinner man: where you go run to…’
Many long serving presidents have relied on patronage to rule. Many developed nations too are stabilized by it. But corruption is like feeding the crocodile: the more you feed it, the bigger it grows and the more food it demands and so on, until you can’t satisfy it anymore and it devours you.
At some point, the corruptions creates some sort of an ozone layer that obstructs leaders from seeing the impact of their policies on the ground. Over time, as the ozone layer gets thicker, they can’t even see the impact of their bribe (poetic justice) – and that usually is pretty much the end.
Patronage is a choice in many countries, it can’t be in a country like Rwanda. Because there isn’t much to steal. Even with parsimonious division of the tiny cake, most remain unsatisfied. Corruption is therefore not effective, nor sustainable in Rwanda.
But fighting corruption is a good fight. It is also a perilous one: a little like David and Goliath – Goliath being the corruption of course! A foolhardy leader would break his teach for biting something he can’t chew.
For some reason, Nigerian presidents suffer a heart attack upon election, I’ve always suspected that once the magnitude of the corruption dawns on them it traumatizes them.
Many political challengers in Africa like to campaign on slogans of ‘fighting corruption’. But no matter the amount of good intentions animating them while in opposition, once they get to power, they quickly realize that it is stronger and more entrenched – clearly beyond them and choose to turn a blind eye for their own survival.
Committing to fight corruption is accepting to live in a lonely place. It is the acceptance to see your brother, your son, your best friend, your comrade and your party member: all hate and turn against you. It is like the plague, a cancer or death: it takes the best among us.
So to fight corruption you have got to be a very, very strong leader; you ought to have a very, very strong network of firm loyalty surrounding you.
However, corruption, just like mediocrity is a habit. practicing it over time becomes a lifestyle, fighting it becomes one too. The fact that every year, more than 150 police officers are sacked and/or jailed in Rwanda every year, doesn’t make the headlines here anymore, nor does policemen returning lost items – including piles of money forgotten by travelers at the Kigali airport.
Even donors are made to account in Rwanda. Unlike in other countries where they work less, deliver less, vacation more and are respected more, in Rwanda there are strict rules of government-donor mutual accountability.
They meet annually to report on their respective pledges. Unlike in other countries, in Rwanda it is their Rwandan counterparts who are complaining that expats are always late.
While public servants sign annual performance contracts, Civil Society and Private Sector too are encouraged to set annual targets through the Joint-Action Development Forums (JADF) and they are evaluated and ranked on them.
So our anti-corruption fight hasn’t earned us only friends; but that’s ok; in fact we are totally better off without that toxic friendship – and to quote President Kagame; ‘we are unapologetic about it’.
This article originally appeared on The New Times ; the views expressed in it are those of the author alone – and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of African Newspage.
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