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20 years later, Kagame steers Rwandans to dream like never before

by Didier Bikorimana
7:31 am

A stinging mist blows east on the rolling hills of Northern Rwanda, overlooking beautiful green tea plantations. Florence Iribagiza, 39, a Rwandan businesswoman in the rural Rwanda, endures the biting cold on her way to open her shop for early customers.

Iribagizais a typical breed of a new Rwandan, zealous, focused, hardworking and determined. She is a brand of a renewed Rwanda, a country that was once close to extinction. On July 4, 1994, a handful of hunger stricken, but well organized group of rebels, the Rwanda Patriotic Army (RPA), matched into Rwanda’s capital, Kigali, toppled the genocidal government and captured power. For Rwandans, history had been written.

More than a million Tutsis would be slaughtered in just 100 days, the worst genocide in human history. Rwanda’s current President Paul Kagame, who was the rebel commander, persevered and fought hard to top the killings. “RPA did not have the luxury to be afraid,” Kagame told journalists in a press conference on Monday July 1, 2014, ahead of the liberation day on this Friday July 4. “We were strengthened by the validity of our cause,” he said.

Twenty years down the road, Rwandans will match at the country’s largest Stadium, Amahoro, to celebrate the victory. This triumph saved the country from a shuttered socioeconomic fabric and a dysfunctional state. Millions of hopeless people with wounded hearts have now healed and managed to build an African success story, a model of prosperity and progress.

“Our will is unshakable and can never be destroyed,” Kagame told journalists. “Freedom and self reliance is what Rwandans deserve and we are giving them the power to achieve both.”

The broke country, Rwanda

Iribagiza, a genocide survivor, lived close to President Kagame’s bunker at Mulindi, in Gicumbi District, about an hour’s drive north of Kigali. At Mulindi was RPA’s military operations design house. It also meant the most targeted spot by enemies, the former President Juvenal Habyariman’s genocide militias.

“We were terrified,” Iribagiza says. “We knew we were going to die.” Afraid of relentless bombing on the hill, Iribagiza and a dozen of other residents ran for their dear life and abandoned the hideout. But all that is history.

She survived and now adetermined business woman in her village, earning about ten US dollars a day, where more than five million Rwandan, half of the population, live under a dollar per day. For her, that is the actual ‘liberation’. Iribagiza’s story is synonymous to that of millions of Rwandans.

Faced with acute demands, ranging from healthcare, food, shelter, clean water, schools, roads, and a terrifying number of unprosecuted genocide perpetrators that were anguishing in rudimentary prisons, the government at the time was under immense pressure. There central bank had been looted to zero funds. RPA was forced to withdraw the few savings of contributions they had collected from supporters around the world.

“There was no budget at all,” says Ambassador Clever Gatete, Rwanda’s Finance Minister, who appeared on a public Television show on Sunday, a day before President Kagame’s press conference. In 1996, for example,the Minister said, Rwanda’s budget was a just Rfw12 billion, which could not finance the pressing needs.

Rwanda can eradicate poverty in 2033

In 1998, the budget grew to Rfw38billion. But the circumstances were worse. Rwanda could only raise 30 percent of the budget. The remaining 70 percent would come from humanitarianassistance andforeign aid assistance.

Today, Rwanda’s budget has exponentially grown to several hundred percentage points; Rfw1.8 trillion ($1.7bn). Now the country is able to domestically raise 62 percent of the budget with an average 8 percent economic growth over the last ten years. Primary school enrolment is more than 90 percent.

Between 2007-2012, World Bank and UN figures show that poverty dropped by up to 15% – removing up to 1.2million Rwandans from extreme poverty. The percentage of poor is currently down to 45%, from more than 60 just a few years before.

A major study released by Oxford University in March 2013 concluded that if Rwanda keeps the current pace in tackling poverty, it will be a thing of the past by 2033.

The study covering 22 countries said Rwanda showed the biggest improvement in sanitation and water. Rwanda also achieved significant reductions in both the scale and intensity of “multidimensional poverty” in every one of its five provinces.

A government computer project, the one laptop per child project, has distributed about 370.000 subsidized internet-connected laptops to primary school pupils around the country. The Presidential prestigious scholarship program has given hundreds of scholarships to young Rwandans to study engineering, science and technology in elite universities in the USA as part of the program to invest in skills.

“We now have a hospital in our community”

More than 98 percent of Rwandans have health insurance. The military has launched a project to construct about 500 medical centers around the country boosting access health coverage. Dozens are already finished. “We no longer walk long distances to get to the hospital,” says Iribagiza. “We have a hospital in our community,” she says with a glowing face and adds that “a secondary school has been constructed close to us and we have access to electricity.”

As the country cheered up for the Liberation Day celebration, the Chief of the Defense Staff, Lt. General Patrick Nyamvumba,Rwanda’s army chief who commanded the UN Peacekeepers in Sudan, flew a helicopter last week with journalists touring over the country. He told journalists that twenty years down the road, “RPA’s mission had been achieved,” but “the struggle continues.”

Indeed, the military enjoys rooftop ratings. Sebastian Teregana, a neighbor to Irabigaza, “We ran whenever we saw a soldier in during Habyariman’s regime,” he says. “It is a different story now, we meet and chat.”In President Kagame’s definition,liberation“means a system that allows people to do that”.

Nonetheless, years later, former US president Bill Clinton, who has enormously supporteddifferent projects in the health sector, visited Rwanda mid 2013, has been a supporter and friend to President Kagame. He told journalists that, “Rwanda did not get there by accident.”

“You have a vision of a country where people live together in peace and harmony and every single person counts, both men and women, and every child has a chance to live at his home in safety and equal opportunity.”


By Didier Bikorimana

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