Kigali, 27/06/2022. The Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) juggernaut has finally rolled out of town, several days after it started with the sort of bang one expects events of such magnitude to start with in Rwanda, where hosting major meetings is now part of what defines the country’s growing identity as a service hub. The Summit came two years after it was initially planned to take place, and a year after it was postponed for the second time, courtesy of the covid-19 pandemic. So, when it finally came, there was rather little left to do to render the event memorable for all concerned.
The government, the local private sector with support from the Commonwealth Secretariat when and where necessary had, over the previous 3 years, already put a great deal of efforts into making the right preparations for the Meeting. Preparing for events of this kind takes resources, financial and others which, for a small developing economy can be hefty and onerous. As a result, one question that is always posed by onlookers is what host countries stand to gain from the huge investment that is involved. Rwanda has been no exception.
Some Rwandans and even the louder and more influential western media have asked time and again why the government was investing in hosting the event. For most Rwandans, one can imagine that it was out of genuine concern about how the government would balance the enormous needs of the population and the resources required to respond to and satisfy them on the one hand, and the large outlays of resources preparation for CHOGM would consume. As for the western media, whatever concern they expressed in this regard could only be feigned. The underlying objective was to ask, with the usual condescending attitude, why an impoverished country “with a poor human rights record”, a key theme in much of the hostile reporting, is “wasting resources”, and why the Commonwealth considered it fit to host such an event. Whatever the underlying reason for asking, however, the question should not be dismissed. It must be answered, if for no other reason, to explain why a government such as Rwanda’s which takes delivering services to its population extremely seriously, could channel vast financial resources into such a venture. Three main reasons come to mind, given Rwanda’s recent history and the determination by both the government and the people to overcome its legacies.
The first reason is the government’s continuing search for or pursuit of exposure for the country. For some years now, the government has had an initiative: “come and see, go and tell”. It has been directed mainly at Rwandans living outside Rwanda, some of whom had fled the violence related to the civil war and the genocide, who had not visited the country for many years. The idea is for them to come and visit and see what is happening inside the country. Further, it is that those who have hitherto been engaged in gratuitous criticism of the government, often parroting narratives created by foreign media and activists, can compare what they see and feel and experience, to claims in dominant, negative narratives. I have had a chance to interact with some of these people during their visits. There is always a complete change in attitude after days of travelling across the country, observing what is going on, and talking to people who live here. As a result, some of the visitors decide to return and resettle permanently, bringing back much-needed skills and financial resources to invest in ventures that create value and employment. Others return to their lives wherever they live. However, the reconnection with Rwanda does not allow them to sit still. The experience turns some into indefatigable ambassadors for the country and many others into investors who, via regular remittances, inject financial resources into numerous ventures that contribute towards making the government’s ambitions a reality.
Events such as CHOGM bring thousands of people into the country, many of them for the first time. Among them will be those who have heard of the country, mainly its association with war, genocide, the much-discussed poor human rights record of the government, and other bad stories. In some quarters these tend to eclipse whatever positive stories are out there about the progress Rwanda has made over the last 28 years. Visiting, therefore, offers people the opportunity to see and experience Rwanda for themselves. It provides them with the opportunity to talk to Rwandans who live in the country and who have lived through some of the most challenging times in Rwanda’s history. It changes attitudes and helps shift perceptions. This has positive spin-offs in as far as these people return to wherever they came from and become active salespersons for the country, attracting others to also visit. For a country that is making strenuous efforts to grow into a tourism hub, this image boosting is priceless.
The second reason is prestige. The prestige that comes with pulling off a successful event where delegates unite in praising, not simply for formality’s sake, the quality of organization, cannot be under-estimated. Such was the quality of organisation behind CHOGM that, as with many things in Rwanda, most events linked to the Summit worked like clockwork. The government hosted and steered the Summit amidst precision in planning. The punctuality with which events happened was remarkable. This is hardly to be expected as a matter of course in Africa where the phrase ‘keeping African time’ captures the rather common tendency to not be punctual. The Government of Rwanda has proved yet again its capacity for organising and managing large-scale and complex events as smoothly as it does small-scale and easy-to-manage ones. The impact this has had on its already established reputation for efficiency and effectiveness has been enormous. It is not for nothing that, even before CHOGM ended, the world football governing body, FIFA, announced that its 73rd Congress during which the FIFA presidential elections will be held, will take place in Kigali in early 2023. One can see how proven capacity and the prestige derived therefrom, are combining to earn the country great dividends and propel it towards achieving its ambition of becoming a conference hub.
Perhaps where dividends are likely to be much more direct is in how hosting such a large meeting can catalyse inward investment. Already, Rwanda has established a great reputation courtesy of the World Bank’s ‘Ease of Doing Business’ rankings, as a good environment in which to do business. This has had significant spin-offs for the country, as it has turned into an attractive destination for investors looking for countries in which to invest. The Government of Rwanda which is not known for resting on its laurels has not relaxed its efforts to attract ever greater numbers of investors. One of the ways in which people figure out where to put their money is through visiting to find out what the countries and places they are eyeing look like, and how they work. Major meetings such as CHOGM are great opportunities to visit and look around, and also interact with investors who would have already set up shop.
I had the opportunity to attend some of the sessions of the Commonwealth Business Forum. The session dedicated to the establishment of the Kigali International Financial Centre (KIFC) and the one focusing on investing in Rwanda captured for me what it means when a government goes beyond talking about wanting to attract investors to actually putting in place the necessary conditions to facilitate them when they arrive. Investors already working in Rwanda gave testimonies based on their individual experiences. These left no doubt about the dedication of the government and its various agencies to ensuring that investors who come to Rwanda have a fairly easy time of both setting up shop and, where difficulties emerge, of working on finding solutions, with dedicated officials. At both sessions, significant numbers of businessmen and women from across the Commonwealth revealed their intentions to establish operations in Rwanda because of the testimonies of their counterparts who are already in the country, locals and non-locals. In the end, if they do, and if they thrive, it can only be good for Rwanda, not least in terms of creating employment for the many young people graduating from its growing number of universities and other tertiary institutions.
There are lessons here for the rest of Africa. In 1994, just after the genocide against the Tutsi ended and the current government took over, many experts literally wrote off the country. They reckoned it would be yet another African failed state. To support their analyses, some experts pointed to the RPF being, as they perceived it, an ‘organization of the minority’, whose members and activists had no prior experience of running a government. No doubt, lack of experience was a real problem. As a result, many were going to learn on the job. However, what the experts did not know was that what the new leaders lacked in experience did not match the scale of their ambitions for their country. Collectively, they wanted to make it work. They wanted to build a new country in which citizens and the government would work together in pursuit of common aspirations. What has happened over the last 28 years in terms of progress bears testimony to the power of vision, ambition, dedication, and focus. If Rwanda can do it, others elsewhere in Africa can do it too. What is needed is leadership. The right kind of leadership.