Sunshine and Shadow in Rwanda’s Rural Housing Programme

Published on IPS, by Barrie Terreblanche, April 27, 2011.

The gleam of new corrugated iron sheets shimmers through the blue-green haze that veils Rwanda’s rural valleys and hillsides. It is a visible sign of Rwanda’s metamorphosis from a nation devastated by genocide seventeen years ago to the fastest modernising state on the continent.

But are the shiny roofs the jewels on Africa’s emerging bride, or the bling worn by a bully?

Most of the new houses are the result of a hugely ambitious plan to bring rural families, at present scattered across the countryside, together into villages called imidugudu, enabling the government to more easily provide electricity, water, schooling and security. But it is a smaller programme, the replacement of grass-thatched houses with more modern structures, which caught the attention of aid agencies when complaints emerged last year that the homes of the minority Batwa, former pygmy forest dwellers, were being destroyed by the government. 

The issue is complex, encapsulating many of the tensions haunting Rwanda as well as the strides it is making towards prosperity.

Evident progress: … //

… What cannot be said:

Coporwa’s efforts to raise the alarm about the demolitions throw an interesting light on the state of Rwandan public discourse. The organisation approached the state-owned daily newspaper, Rwanda Radio and the government television channel for coverage, but was rebuffed. A private station in Kigali, City Radio, gave them an airing, and the organisation commissioned its own documentary video to help persuade government officials of the harm caused by the campaign.

Faith Mbabazi of Rwanda Radio explains that her radio station did cover the story, but not through the prism of Corporwa, focussing only on the Batwa. Because the demolitions affected other Rwandans as well, the station covered the story inclusively without mentioning ethnicity.

This is in line with the extreme sensitivity around ethnic identity in the media and in politics, stemming from the 1994 genocide in which Hutu extremists, feelings stoked by years of racist “Hutu Power” hate speech spewed by Rwandan radio stations and newspapers, tried to exterminate the minority Tutsi population in a 100-day orgy of violence. Today, mass graves and scattered bones are still being discovered as Rwandans undertake their unprecedented building spree of roads, homes and agricultural terraces.

Against this background, the idea that the demolition of Batwa houses in the Bye-Bye Nyakatsi campaign could have anything to do with discrimination against them – a form of ethnic cleansing – is unthinkable.

But how could some of the district leaders get it so wrong? The answer to this question provides fascinating insight into how the Rwandan development miracle is being driven.

One element is the enormous pressure under which the country’s 30 district leaders work. They sign a personal performance contract with Rwandan president Paul Kagame, who has a fearsome reputation as a leader who insists targets are met. Come election time, it is not the voters who kick out the underperforming district leaders, but the ruling party that persuades them to withdraw their candidature, says a senior Rwandan journalist at a state-owned newspaper.

At the same time a carrot of extra allocations for well-performing districts is dangled in front of them, so that the districts compete with one another to score the highest in meeting their development targets.

Musoni explains the “decentralisation” system which allows the national government’s centrally-planned policies to be implemented in the remotest corners of the country: “You take elected (local) leaders, you take them for a seminar, you teach them, we show them the benefits, give them tools, kits, and they go back: you know that this is going to be done. They really do a great job.”

The result is that local leaders often err on the side of zeal rather than care. The Batwa made homeless have not been forgotten, say the authorities.

Local government minister Musoni says: “It was a mistake committed by some local leaders (in the east and south of Rwanda). They didn’t get the proper message. But I went out [in a] statement over the radio and warned them, and it immediately stopped. But there had been some families that have been really hurt.”

Niyomugabo confirms that, as far as Coporwa knows, the premature demolitions have stopped. Musoni says that the local leaders were ordered to rent houses on behalf of the affected families, or help them to stay with family members. (full long text).

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