A Letter to President Kagame: COVID-19 and Rethinking Our Development Path

Dear Mr. President, I’m writing to you about COVID-19 and its impact on the life of ordinary citizens, livelihoods of our communities and the economy. The objective is to share what I have learnt about the unprecedented social, economic and political effects of this pandemic on our country, with the goal of proposing a rethink of the government’s development strategy now undermined by this virus. I also want to share with you how the pandemic has exposed deeper historical logjams that have, for decades informed and helped to sustain our nation’s continued underdevelopment and how this state of affairs can be changed, since it is not in the state of nature but created by our beliefs, actions and inactions.

Before delving into this, allow me to clarify why I decided to write to you and how I understand development.

First, I did not take the decision to write to you lightly since some colleagues and friends advised against it arguing it would be misunderstood as opposition to government with adverse consequences to me. But after careful consideration, I decided to write, both because I know you care about our nation’s development and have, at different fora, encouraged Rwandans to participate in it; expose poor services and reject it. Secondly, I also write as a citizen, a stakeholder, and shareholder who wants to make a useful contribution in a country where you are the CEO as captured in a book you launched and said it told “the real Rwandan story” at Serena Hotel on January 18, 2013. The book is titled: “Rwanda Inc.

Mr. President, unlike classical development thinkers that present the term in exclusively economic and material terms, I take development to mean the collective building by a nation’s critical constituents, of a consensual and viable political, social, and economic systems capable of ensuing individual and collective wellbeing; including meeting basic needs of every citizen as well as solving a nation’s problems that are structural in nature, and, in the process, helping to sustain collective wealth, security and peaceful co-existence.

Clarified thus, the effects of COVID-19 will here be presented and analyzed from their social, economic, political and ideological standpoints.

The strategy to curb COVID-19 and its effect

Mr. President, as you know, the government first announced it had detected the first COVID-19 case on March 14, 2020, from an individual traveling from Mumbai, India. A week later, on March 21, stringent measures to curb the pandemic were put in place. These included national lockdown and stay-at-home; recommending social distancing, regular wash of hands and wearing a mask for individuals in public spaces.

At the time, the public was told that the individual with the virus had been identified and isolated, with others suspected to have come in contact with him being tracked down to contain the spread. The nation was assured that everything was under control. With that assurance, the public believed the spread of the virus would be contained and the country returned to normalcy within the stipulated two weeks. But it is now eleven months since, and the pandemic is still here; the nation still under partial lockdown. By this February 9th, at least 16,811 individuals had contracted the virus and 226 dead.

Most citizens now wonder and we ask why, despite stringent measures, the pandemic is still with us ravaging the economy; lives, businesses and livelihoods. Has the strategy adopted to contain the pandemic been effective? Most importantly, what has been and is the continuing effect of the pandemic? What can we, as a nation, learn from this unprecedented pandemic and what can be done to help put the nation back to its development trajectory?

To be sure, the pandemic, has had a worldwide effect and failure to eradicate it is not limited to Rwanda. But, I limit the diagnosis to Rwanda.

Mr. President, with regard to strategy to contain the pandemic, I must recognize that when COVID-19 broke out, the government acted in good time, as it informed citizens about the virus and took steps to curb it. To its credit, unlike some governments in the region, your government promised to follow science and advice from medical professionals. That is to be appreciated. The role played by medical professionals must also be recognized and hailed.

However, from the beginning, the pandemic was taken more as a health hazard and a strategy devised to contain it. This strategy has had five elements: following science and providing information about the virus; tracking and testing, isolating identified contracted individuals and medicating them. Secondly, lockdowns. Third, recommending wearing masks, washing hands and social distancing. Fourth, attempts to help the most vulnerable get food and an “Economic Recovery Plan” to help some businesses. And, finally, deploying the police to enforce instructions.

Mr. President, in enforcing COVID rules, the police has used varied tactics, including arresting, imprisoning and fining suspected offenders. This strategy has had far-reaching and continuing consequences.

The socio-economic impact of COVID-19

Mr. President, as a common saying goes, the “proof of the pudding is in eating”. We must evaluate the success of the strategy used to contain the pandemic on the basis of its success or failure as well as its broader effects on individual lives and livelihoods, as well as the nation’s life; businesses and the economy, relations with neighbours and the world. What has the strategy left us with?

While the strategy has, comparatively helped to contain the spread of the virus, its overall success is minimal and unexpected. For, to date, according to data provided by both the government as well as global institutions, like the United Nations (UN/UNDP), the IMF and the World Bank, to mention but a few, the socio-economic impact of the pandemic is devastating.

Taking an economic and material approach, these institutions show that GDP growth is expected to fall to 2 percent or less; the government’s services-led development strategy based on Meetings, Incentives, Conventions and Exhibition is unlikely to materialize in the short to medium term, while, as the IMF points out, the national debt is expected to increase to 66.4 percent in 2021 up from 64.5 percent in 2020 and 58.1 percent in 2019. Both domestic revenue from taxes and non-tax revenues, as well as externally generated revenue, have dropped and expected to fall further as businesses are disrupted by lockdowns, production curtailed, supply chains disrupted and demand reduced.

In addition, individual livelihoods have adversely been affected, poverty increased as the poor become poorer and more joining poverty ranks – with the UNDP assessing that measures taken to contain the pandemic “have had and will continue having far-reaching social and economic consequences”.

In its January 2021 report titled “Rwanda Economic Update”, the World Bank gives an even grimmer assessment. It reports that GDP, “in real terms fell by 3.6 percent…in the third quarter of 2020, following a 12.4% contraction in the second quarter” while “employment to population ration fell by 5 percent during the lockdown February to May 2020” and “Unemployment soared …from 13 percent to 22 percent” with “those who kept jobs, 60 percent reported lower salaries”.

Consequently, it adds: “The headcount poverty rate is likely to rise by 5.1 percent points (more than 550,000 people) in 2021” with the “increase in urban areas… greater than [the] increase in rural areas” while the debt increased to 66 percent up from 58.1 percent. The report goes on to add that the “Cost of [the] Economic Recovery Plan (announced by government) is estimated to be US$900m over two fiscal years 2019-2020 and 2020-2021” and as such, unless something is done to arrest the situation, the “effects of the pandemic may be felt for years”.

Beyond these quantitative macro effects, the pandemic and strategy used to contain it has had more qualitative impact not captured by these more material based measures of development. Mr. President, I turn to these below.

Socio-political impact of COVID-19 and what these teaches us about our development path

Mr. President, besides numerical impact, there are qualitative findings discernable from how the strategy to curb COVID-19 was implemented; what government officials said and did and how the citizenry responded. These actions and words used, teach us something about Rwandans, the perceived role of government, leaders and institutions as well as the citizenry.

Securitization of the virus: Mr. President, looking at how COVID-19 was treated by government, it is fair to say, it was securitized; although the problem begun as a health problem. Within a few weeks of announcing the virus, suddenly, it became an existential security threat to the nation and security agents were allowed to take over its management to the extent that asking people what they fear most between the virus and the police, most cite the latter. In fact, hospitals reported a spike in accidents every evening towards curfew time as people on foot, motorbikes, and vehicles rushed home to avoid arrest.

To illustrate, on October 31, 2020, a moto taxi rider told Rwanda TV in relation to accidents that occur towards curfew time: “This is due to the fear of arrest and because everyone fears arrest, everyone is running…everyone has lost their mind due to the fear…All people, motorists move on the road with their minds on arrest rather than possible accident”.

This fear is not without basis as police brutality was widely reported, two individuals were reportedly killed in Nyanza on March 25 and another killed in Ngoma on September 1, 2020. In addition, hundreds were arrested, confined and fined. Mr. President, the media asked you about this reported police brutality, to which you responded in a television interview on September 6, 2020 saying that while police had done a good job, you would help put an end to reported brutality by a few.

Yet this police brutality was not and is not inevitable; it was a choice taken. And from my work as a lecturer and researcher, I have engaged senior police and military officers at their national command colleges in Musanze and I know we have some of the best and disciplined senior police officers who understand the importance of treating citizens humanely; how this builds trust and helps ensure sustainable security. The problem then is with the top leadership of the police; the choices they take and the instructions they give to junior officers.

On August 27, 2020 the police spokesman told RTV that any one breaking COVID-19 instructions will be severely punished, arrested, fined and imprisoned and actually added: “If they don’t fear to be killed by COVID, we must make them fear punishment”. Local Government minister, on the same show said: “Those not obeying COVID instructions are betraying the country and Rwandans” and added: “Their punishment must be multiplied several times. We will work on it. We will work with police to ensure that happens. We are very capable of that”. And, indeed this happened; but no specific laws were cited beyond instructions and cabinet resolutions.

Critically, while lockdown was perhaps necessary in the fight against the pandemic, the arrest of hundreds, imprisonment and fines meted, was done without any law supporting it. It was uncalled for; yet, rule of law requires the executive to act within the law. This disregard for the law, again, represents a broader pattern that, historically, has undermined sustainable peace and development.

A problem of planning, scenario building, and informed assumptions

Mr. President, after about a week following announcing the first lockdown, on March 27th, you held a virtual press conference and, among other things, addressed the effects of the pandemic; relations with neighbours and why the lockdown was important. When asked whether a new economic strategy was being considered or whether there was any change to the MICE strategy since it had been affected. You responded: “It is too early” to determine or decide what strategy to follow since “the economy is built on people and their activities and everything has been affected; even trucks that were remaining on the road are affected”.

In addition, despite the strategy adopted to contain the pandemic not delivering what was expected, there has been no change to it. Even for the two-year Economic Recovery Plan which is eight months old, incurring interest on the loan and yet, little of this fund has been used due to the fact that businesses are still under lockdown. This, objectively, is a failure of informed scenario building, thinking in terms of short, medium and long term possibilities. What does the planning department in MINECOFIN and the strategic policy planning unit at the presidency do?

An economic problem

Besides macro assessments made by foreign institutions, on September 21, 2020, Rwanda TV reported that the economy had contracted by 12.4% and Radio Rwanda reported, on September 22, 2020 that the poor had been hit most. Other media reported that a huge percent of Kigali residents had their livelihood incomes ended and 60 percent without food. In addition, the informal sector is in depression. And matters were not helped by decisions taken by institutions such as RURA which, at different times, ordered commercial vehicles not to increase fares and yet reduce number of passengers they transport! How can they be expected to make profit and stay in business?
Yet, this was not inevitable. If the pandemic had properly been diagnosed as both a healthy and economic virus and handled as such, the situation would be better today. If the pandemic had been understood as a health and economic hazard that would stay with us for some time and a more humane and less punitive response taken, with a strategy that appealed to hearts and minds and deploying more persuasive communication that aroused citizen’s patriotic sentiments, addressed their fears and worries and, in the process, deploy soft rather than hard power of “you will do this or we shall arrest, fine you and imprison you”, the result today would be different. Why hasn’t this approach been considered yet hard power is not working?

An Education and a science problem

Mr. President, one of the most teachable thing at this time in the history of our country is that when the pandemic broke out, we did not invest in or even try to find the vaccine or COVID cure. No one even asked, publicly, whether this was a possibility. Why? Of course, some may say: “We are not the only country that did not do that”. Granted. But when shall we, as a nation, start investing in consequential research, including medical research? This question is important because, looking at our post-independence history, this lack of investing in science and cure for diseases is indicative of a bigger problem: an education system that has, for the last more 100 years since the arrival of modern education in Rwanda and more than 500 since the scientific revolution, not enabled us to contribute anything significant in the realm of science and discovery. Whether small or big scientific innovations, discoveries and breakthroughs, Rwanda has only been a consumer and not a creator. Even writing our history has largely been a preserve of western writers until recently. With this failure, we must ask: what do we teach our physicians, biologists and medical researchers? Do we only teach them to diagnose disease and offer tablets or research in vaccines and cures for diseases? To put this in the broader historical context, we can ask, what has been our contribution in the realm of science in the last 100 years since the arrival of formal western education in Rwanda? Yet, before the arrival of colonialists and modern education, our medicine people cured almost all diseases. We must, therefore, change our education system that largely educates job seekers, administrators, politicians and dependents.

A social problem

Mr. President, there seems to be a disconnect between citizens and the leadership. From my analysis, the strategy and tactics used to manage the pandemic illustrate a disconnect between the leadership and the people. In part, that is why the pandemic persisted since citizens were not listened to, nor requested to make a patriotic sacrifice and contribution to the fight against the pandemic. Instead, trust was placed in the police force, ordering citizens to follow instructions with punitive measures for offenders. This illustrates that there is no relations between the leaders and the led and gaps in how to communicate to be able to win the trust of the citizenry.

A regional and foreign policy problem:

When the pandemic struck, Rwanda was not at good diplomatic terms with Uganda and Burundi. Its relation with DRC were improving and relations with its neighbor to the East, Tanzania were good. Due to COVID and the latter’s approach to it, relations have soured, with you, Mr. President, saying at one of the press conferences held during the pandemic that Rwanda was “almost held at ransom” and given a hard choice of “take it or leave it” in relation to the standoff that ensued on the border with Tanzania in mid 2020 as drivers from there were protesting and refusing to be tested on entry in Rwanda; a factor that led our goods to be held up longer than necessary. And, of course, despite deploying punitive measures to contain the virus, even the United Kingdom, which itself has worse COVID cases has put the country on the not-welcome red list. What this tells us, Mr. President, is that more diplomatic footwork is needed to mend relations with neighbours and friends.

A justice and truth problem:

As noted earlier, hundreds of people were arrested, held up, imprisoned and fined without following any law. And as someone who has for a year followed and personally observed how our judicial institutions operate─from how the police treats those it arrests to how they run their cells to how the Rwanda Investigation Bureau (RIB) treats suspects to how the prosecution proceeds to how courts, judges and prosecutors behave in court and treat suspects to how prisons works and treat suspects and convicts, I can report that, the securitization of COVID-19 conforms to how those institutions work: that is, what the executive and powerful individuals in government say is obeyed regardless of whether its legal basis is. For example, from my personal research, I found out that over 90 percent of those who are brought before courts as suspects never receive bail; yet bail is a legal right based on the presumption of innocent until proven otherwise! Why is this? To former judges I talked to, some prosecutors and even RIB investigators I talked to say judges fear to grant bail that would annoy powerful individuals that may have ordered the arrest in the first place. In addition, some suspects spend more than a year even two without appearing in court for the formal hearing of their cases after being denied bail and, when some eventually do appear in court and some found innocent and released, they cannot even file a complaint against the government to seek redress since its not allowed by law. Broadly then, there is limited abidance by the law and there is limited judicial independence; a factor I will in future return to.

Mr. President, I would also like to inform you that illegal detention center do exist and so do “safe houses”, and torture exists in some of these places. I have personally met many individuals who have been in these centers, including three journalists who are also my former students at the School of Journalism and Communication at the University of Rwanda. I will never forget the day they came to see me while still in prison and one of them, Shadrack told me: “We are sorry that you have been brought here! But we have come to ask for your advice! You taught us how to do truthful and balanced reporting and when we did, we were imprisoned”! Their Crime was reporting that there had been a rebel attack in Nyabimata─a crime now people like Paul Rusesabagina and Sankara are being accused of but which, at the time these journalists reported it government did not want it reported, and secondly, for these journalists reporting that Rwanda was surrounded by enemies and wondering how it would get itself out of it. They were arrested and imprisoned in 2018. Their charges keep changing. Now, how can that be a crime? Isn’t Rwanda accusing Uganda of habouring dissidents? Isn’t it at loggerheads with Burundi? How about FDLR, FLN, P5 in DRC et cetera?

I must also report to you, Mr. President that I have not only personally seen some police officers beating people publicly, but saw it in the cells they run. While I was incarcerated at Kicukiro police station, every evening, people would be brought covered with black hoods on their faces and guards would ask all of us to lie down so we do not see who was being brought in and they would be taken in to the right of our cell where I learnt there are underground rooms that certain suspects are locked up. One night, one of such suspects was brought to our common cell, malnourished, fearful, with lots of beards and fainting voice, but in the dead of the night, the young man, crying, was again taken away. I do not know what happened to him.

I have heard some government officials, including the minister of justice denying the existence of illegal detention centers or “safe house” and torture. Either they genuinely do not know the truth of what is happening in their sector or they fear the consequences of acknowledging the truth. Because I believe we cannot, as a country attain sustainable peace, development and democracy without acknowledging such abhorrent practices and eradicating them, I must tell you the truth of what I know to be true and happening to our people.

A freedom of expression and media freedom problem:

At a press conference on October 2, 2020, the minister of health told journalists that “The vaccine will be available between January and March 2021”. Surprisingly, no journalist asked: Where would the vaccine come from? Were we making our own or we would buy? If we were not making the vaccine, why not? If we would buy, how much would it cost and where would the money come from? Remember, by this time, no country or company had discovered the vaccine yet. This lacking of asking relevant questions and holding leaders accountable is part of a larger problem; which is the presence of a subservient and unquestioning media that promotes the single voice of the leaders and government. Without media holding leaders accountable, it is difficult to have democratic government.

Mr. President, I have been working in the media industry for the last 24 years, first as a journalist, then an editor, educator, media owner and researcher but have never ceased to promote and advocate media freedom, including when I was the managing editor of The New Times between 2004-2005; a newspaper normally associated with the RPF and the government. The reason I did that and still do, is because media freedom is good for good governance, accountability, advancing individual and collective freedom of expression, advancing greater understanding, peaceful co-existence and democracy – while a single voice in the media, as currently promoted, nurtures repression and authoritarianism.

Mr. President, from my private conversations over the years with government officials, former officials, journalist and ordinary citizens, I can report that fear of speaking out is real; and silence for many does not mean all is okay; for those, like me, who keep their ears on the ground; most people do not speak out not because they are satisfied with the state of affairs, but simply because they are afraid of the consequences. As Rwandans say, “People do not fear a forest, they fear what they have come in contact with in the forest in the past”. The consequence of speaking out is often too high to countenance; not just for the speaker, but everyone related to them.

An ideological problem:

Mr. President, during the lockdown, many citizens, including business executives and bankers were in the media asking what they referred to as “the Parent” (meaning government and the president) to help them. A CEO of a local bank told the media late last year: “Our parent, the government and the president should help us”. This request and expectation has been with us since independence where the government and the president were regarded as “parents”. Ordinarily, this would not be a problem but our history shows that this reference refers to a broader underlying ideological conundrum referring to a relationship between government and citizens; leaders and the led, with the former perceived as the source of unquestionable ideas, wisdom, wealth, success and misery and the others as beneficiaries. It is this idea that makes government and leaders take decisions, without consulting citizens and expect them to follow without question as has been happening. And if one questions, trouble awaits. It is also this unarticulated, but operational belief that define relationships between arms of government with the executive where the later has historically been the most powerful. It is also this idea that makes other institutions weak; the media and civil society expected to follow whatever the government wants and decides.

This unspoken belief system is not new. Former President Juvénal Habyarimana was commonly referred to as “the parent” and so was his government. What this bequeathed us as a nation is public knowledge today. This ideological deference underlies the idea promoted by some officials that “government makes people” without it, no one can succeed at anything or “be anyone” – as they say. But who makes who? Who creates value and produce wealth? Where does the government work and what does it produce, in monetary terms every financial year? Yes, leaders and government employees do an important job of providing enabling environment that make organized life possible, business and production viable, but produce no bankable output as citizens and individuals do and sustain it.

While the law is clear on rule of law, in practice that is the basis of unquestionable and arbitrary government actions we see daily and still see during COVID-19. Yet, in a democracy, Mr. President, leaders and the government are supposed to be servants. Beyond rhetoric, is our government a servant with the mandate of the citizens who must hold it to account or a parent? This is the conundrum, Mr. President; for, I believe, most of the problems our country has had since independence has, in part, emanated from this relationship between the government, leaders and the citizenry.

Unless the government and leaders become servants, arbitrary and unquestionable decisions, actions and injustice will continue.

Mr. President, my recommendations on what can be done to supplement what is already being done to curb the effects of COVID-19 and ensure sustainable development will come in part two of this letter.

Yours sincerely,
Christopher Kayumba