Rwandan governance during the pandemic: A time for introspection

Rwanda reacts early and effectively to the pandemic with this hand-washing facility at the bus terminal in Kigali in mid-March. Photo by Cyril Ndegeya, used with permission.

Editor's note: This article originally appeared in Friedrich Ebert Stiftung blog and is republished here with permission with light edits. 

Following the World Health Organization's designation of the coronavirus as a pandemic, Rwanda became the first country in Africa to enter a phase of confinement. On March 23, the government ordered a strict lockdown, restricting traveling and closing universities to reduce the spread of the virus in the country. Since then, there have been 7,970 confirmed COVID-19 cases, with 74 deaths and 6,289 recovered cases in Rwanda, according to Johns Hopkins University.

The Rwanda governance model is built on two competing narratives: alongside the story of being a “donor darling,” the country is popularly seen as a successful example for development in Africa. It is also an authoritarian state based on a tightly centralized economic and political power within the ruling party, Rwandan Patriotic Front, which controls the state security apparatus and owns major enterprises in the country. This governance model has based its legitimacy on rapid socio-economic progress.

Some political commentators rightly suggest turning to the coronavirus outbreak as a scale to test the nature and quality of our institutions. And the obvious place to start is by looking at the strengths and weaknesses of the state machinery and how power responds to citizens’ demands.

Shortly after the government announced a nationwide lockdown, citizens took to social media, more specifically—Rwandans on Twitter (dubbed as RWoT)—urging the government to provide emergency food relief for the most vulnerable families and to implement palliative economic measures as soon as possible.

Will this $12 million grant from ADEPR reach the poor who are affected by #COVID19? or will it be taught by the village & Mutwarasibo as was the case in the last issue in @Gasabo_District almost everywhere? What is missing from this program? @ashyaka

It is important to understand the national context. It's rare to see Rwandans publicly criticizing the state— especially on social media — because of the current government's reluctance to tolerate criticism. Often, people are afraid to raise their concerns because of state repression and its history of coercive power to maintain control.

When the pandemic started in Rwanda, many went so far as to ask the government for more transparency over the management of the national Agaciro Fund (agaciro means “dignity” in Kinyarwanda). Citizens have been asking why the government has not yet allocated some of its own funds for mitigating the socioeconomic effects of this crisis rather than asking the World Bank and International Monetary Fund for bailouts and loans.

Citizens draw their inspiration from abroad, how other countries have responded to the economic effects of this crisis. Moreover, it is essential to understand this sudden awakening of citizens especially in a context of a nation where official government views dominate the domestic media, with limited free speech, coupled with a very weak civil society.

Even though the gross national product has hovered about 7 percent during the past decade, most Rwandans, mostly young and uneducated, remain poor, jobless, and financially insecure. As a result, there is a strong and growing expression of citizens’ frustrations—especially in the urban areas—toward the official discourse about the country’s development and socio-economic progress.

Meanwhile, neighboring East African Community (EAC) member states like Kenya have already announced economic stimulus packages to deal with the devasting economic impact of the virus outbreak. Uganda, also, has already requested a supplementary budget of 284 billion Ugandan shillings (about $75 million USD) to fight the COVID-19 outbreak and its effects. For its part, Rwanda has announced a comprehensive economic mitigation strategy to assist businesses and the private sector in dealing with the economic effects of this crisis, though the details of this plan are not publicly available yet and nine months later the private sector has not received a penny.

Months after the implementation of the lockdown order, the government has been mute over citizens’ demand for food relief support. Controversies have emerged in local social media suggesting that authorities have given out so little or insufficient support for the vulnerable families.

This crisis has shed light on the growing political frictions within the government, given the sackings in April of the Minister of Interior and Security, General Patrick Nyamvumba, and the Minister of State in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and East African Cooperation, Ambassador Olivier Nduhungirehe. It seems that this turmoil illustrates the absence of a clear government strategy to deal with this crisis. Officially, the two ministers were sacked for lying to the head of state, carelessness and for consistently acting based on their personal opinions rather than implementing national policies under their respective dockets.

Today, it appears that through this pandemic, the myth of an organized and efficient state is being shattered.

With this pandemic, questions arise about the maturity and legitimacy of Rwanda's governance model. Is an authoritarian development model effective at absorbing social inequalities and conflicts? Despite its hegemony, the current political model remains vulnerable.

In light of the growing frustration of a population already suffering from hardship, unemployment and poverty, it is clear that the regime’s reluctance to tolerate criticism may undermine the longevity of its model.

The full disruptive impact of the coronavirus crisis will take months, if not years, to reveal itself. In the meantime, for those Rwandans who are anxious about all this, it might be worth thinking about how this outbreak could eventually change Rwandan society for the better.

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