A Letter to President Kagame: How to Contain Covid-19 and Ensure Sustainable Development (Part 2)

Dr. Christopher Kayumba
For 12 year-old Igihozo Kevin, unlike learners of his age from a few families who have television, he followed lessons on radio during the long period when schools were closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. For Igihozo to have a future worth looking forward to, as Kayumba Christopher writes, President Kagame needs to change the direction of the country (Photo by Habib Kanobana/INEE)

Mr. President, two days ago, on February 10, 2021, I published a letter addressed to you concerning the effects of COVID-19; how these have affected our country’s development path and the problem with the strategy currently in place to curb the pandemic. This part of the letter contains recommendations on how identified challenges can be overcome and our country put back to a robust and sustainable development path.

The recommendations are divided into three parts: Short term, medium and long-term policy choices. Here below, I enumerate them:

Short to medium term policy responses to COVID-19

1. In the short term, it is important to de-securitize responses to COVID-19 and make measures to control it more humane; pro-people and pro-business. This approach should start with a public speech by you, your Excellency, explaining the dangers of the pandemic to the public and appealing to citizen’s patriotic duty to cooperate and make a sacrifice by wearing masks without fail whenever in public; socially distance and wash hands as health professionals advice. The speech should also include calling on the police to end punitive measures, arresting, imprisoning and arbitrarily fining an already impoverished citizenry.  Considering the respect Rwandans have for you, Mr. President and how obedient we citizens can be, if such a speech was to be aired on all our airwaves and published in all our media outlets, I’m sure, the public would enthusiastically respond to the call; follow the rules and the pandemic will be defeated.

2. Secondly, put in place a strategy of fighting COVID-19 based on understanding worries, fears and perceptions of ordinary people and businesses and therefore appeal to their patriotic souls and communitarian duty. In practice this means that instead of the police, local leaders from the village level (Umudugudu) to the cell (akagari) together with health workers at the same levels upwards should take over the management and enforcement of the Ministry of Health COVID-19 guidelines; with the police only playing a minimal role of enforcing the curfew and humanely ensuring that everyone in public wears a mask. This change to the strategy would be more effective if these officials were officially requested by you, in the same speech, to do their patriotic duty of sensitizing citizens on the importance of abiding by the Ministry of Health guidelines to curb the pandemic.

3. Poor households in urban centers and the informal sector should be given direct and non-refundable financial assistance. This would ease the suffering for many individuals and families in urban areas without food and other basic needs. This response should be an addition to the “Economic Recovery Plan” that mainly addresses small and medium businesses. This measure is important not only to curb increasing poverty, school dropout for children from poor families and malnutrition, but also boosting both effective demand and supply─two important elements to boost economic recovery.

4. Invest more in cooperatives, most of which deal with agricultural, husbandry, artisan and informal sector activities that normally drive local household incomes, collective and individual saving in rural and some urban areas. In the short to medium term, this can be a potential substitute to MICE in driving economic recovery.

5. Robustly refinance small and medium industries by expanding the economic recovery package while adopting fiscal measures to help large industries to avoid a financial crisis. For, finance and cash are the base on which businesses and development strategies, in part, depend.

6. Allow ALL businesses countrywide to restart, albeit at partial capacity in some areas more affected by COVID-19 with a requirement that they all abide by the Ministry of Health guidelines religiously.

Medium to long term policy options

Mr. President, different from the above policy choices, I will divide recommendations for the medium to long term into two interrelated parts: the outer-side of development─which is economic and material in nature and normally favoured by orthodox development economists and organizations like the World Bank, and the IMF, as well as the inner-side of development─which relate to non-material but critical components of development like building trust and a cooperating culture between citizens and  government; patriotism and national cohesion; free debate and welcoming alterative views, ideas and perspectives, et cetera; elements that are normally ignored or less valued in most development strategies and policies; yet it is these that structure, nurture and enable material and democratic advancement.

Below are such policy choices:

Addressing the Ideological problem

There is an urgent need to address the ideological conundrum where, instead of being a servant, government is discursively presented as a “parent”, and in practice behaves as such by attempting to do everything, nurturing the culture of citizens begging almost everything from it, limited consultations with citizens on what is done in their name and expecting citizens to follow each and every decision without question. I believe, Mr. President, that sustainable development requires government to have a relationship with the citizenry, civil society, business and the media based on accountability, free will, freedom of expression, association and action as well as citizen responsibility.

A servant-government mentality, consciousness and practice is needed where government work is limited to putting in place an enabling environment for an entrepreneurial and civic culture to develop. This can only happen with limited government that only provide critical services such as collective security, law and order, putting in place needed infrastructure, serving rule of law, education, health, providing justice for all, ensuring cordial relations with other nations – while leaving the productive sector to the populace. 

Embrace bottom-up economics and downgrade top-down policies

There is need to move away from top-down economic policies to embracing bottom-up economics based on implementing humane and pro-people policies; including changing the taxation system and banning multiple taxation at the local levels that cripple the informal sector. Local taxes such as those taxing women selling fruits, bananas, et cetera, cripples businesses. These informal business should be left to grow and, once they have money, they can pay indirect taxes say through buying things like bread for their families, milk et cetera; items that are indirectly taxed. When these informal business are directly taxed they are not only crippled since they cannot grow, but disposable income that ordinary people use to buy taxable commodities is diminished and, in the process this affects the growth of industry and production since the money taxed is not put back into the productive sector, but is spent in non-productive things; like administrative expenditures.

Since land is the most basic and important resource most Rwandans have, it is important to remove taxation on land recently introduced since most poor families and individuals cannot afford it. 

Also, while government has, admirably been investing heavily in big public projects like hotels and other ventures to make Rwanda a regional hub for conferences and finance, it is also important to invest more in development ventures at local levels.

This also include putting the individual and communities at the center of development. Mr. President, historically, the individual in our country has discursively and practically been presented as “illiterate” and in need of material help and civilization from leaders and the government. Leaders have been presented as “educators, civilizers and liberators” of the illiterate and backward (abaturage) citizens who do not know what they want. In part, that is why, in this era of COVID, leaders and the police do what they want without consideration of people’s civic rights and freedoms. Currently, individuals are put at the center of development only rhetorically, not in practice. It is important to reverse this trend.

Addressing dual-dependency

There is need to end the existing dual-dependency mentality and consciousness. Mr. President, as you know, the government partially depends on foreign donors and support. However, citizens, business and civil society also depend, in large part, on government handouts and tenders with limited personal freedom and initiative. This double dependence is problematic because it has, over time led to three practical outcomes:

a. Every Rwandan, whether well or less educated aspires to work for government because it is associated, wrongly, with wealth, unlimited power and success. This is why control of the government and the state has historically caused and still causes violent fights among the elite. Policies to end this mentality would help.

b. Second, the private sector, as a consequence, is underdeveloped with no indigenous business that is as old as our independence as most survive on government contracts and support and, in the process, each successive government has given rise to new favoured businesses with unfavoured old ones dying.

c. Finally, science, creativity, innovation, and discovery which normally fall within the productive and civic space have been retarded since the brightest prefer working for government and thus, roles have been reversed, with the government and leaders becoming the unquestionable “knowers” and certifiers of truth and scientific knowledge. For development to take place, roles should be reversed with citizens becoming the knowers, creators and the source of power and scientific knowledge – while the government becomes the servant of the people. This can happen if a sensitization campaign and strategy is put in place taddress this dual dependence and the consciousness while highlighting the ingenuity of individuals and what they can do if they put their mind to it.

Change education system, provide scientific independence to universities and, invest in science

To change the education system, the starting point should be to build a system, not merely giving information to students, but one based on possibilities and belief in science. Doing this requires putting individual students at the center of learning and nurturing them as probable discoverers, “Knowers”, thinkers of the future and innovators while teachers become facilitators and scientists as well as researchers becoming producers of scientific knowledge and its certifiers, while government funds research and public education. In practice, this would mean:

a. Doing away with an education system that teaches children to cram and memorize what they are taught by teachers with the objective of reproducing the same in exams, and instead endorse a dual system that also requires students to engage in creative and critical thinking, engaging in the production of productive and design projects, creative communication and writing; nurturing innovative and cooperating ventures and relationships; self-belief and independent thinking; the source of ideas and wealth, how to create and sustain wealth, the source of happiness, dealing with perceptions, et cetera. Mr. President, is it not surprising that almost all the good things every person aspires to have such as wealth, happiness, having meaningful and cooperating relationships are rarely taught in our education system? Is it not surprising that while thinking is the most basic and perhaps the most important tool everyone needs no school or university teaches it as a standalone subject?

b. Ensuring that education accessed in public schools, where majority of our children study, is the same as that offered in private schools where children of most government officials study.

c. Ensure that knowledge is approached and presented by teachers not as something “out there” but within each and every student – with the role of the teacher being to wake up this germ.

d. Changing the education system would also mean not only prioritizing science and conceptualizing the individual as the knower, creator and originator of ideas and knowledge, but also ensuring that the scientists and searchers are the originators and certifiers of scientific knowledge and truth, not the government as it is currently.

e. The education system reform should also include granting more independence to public universities, including the University of Rwanda where lecturers are regarded and treated as government employees with limited freedom of expression and its leaders appointed by government. Giving greater independence to the university and ensuring its leadership is recruited on merit will advance the scientific cause, quality research and scientific innovation that we currently do not have.

Allow Media and civil society to work freely

Mr. President, the aforementioned ideology of government as “parent” that is unquestionable and leaders who control economic, social and political power, has affected how the media and civil society work, relate with citizens and the government. Since the media reform of 2008-2009 that gave the media regulator, at the time MHC more powers, there has been increasing attempt to silence independent media; a practice reversed with the media reforms of 2011-2013 that introduced media self-regulation under RMC. However, since 2015, and the forced exile of former RMC chairman, the independent media has, progressively been silenced. What has emerged, despite the birth of many media outlets, is a single voice in the media; a voice that repeats what government officials say without question. As a result, within Rwanda, there is a single voice both in the political arena, the media, civil society and public discourse. Within civil society, the most vibrant are those that deal with gender and social issues. Those that deal with human rights, civil and political rights, are almost nonexistent or mute.

Yet sustainable development, and democratic peace only thrive with a multiplicity of voices, robust and free civic engagement as well as freedom of expression. Mr. President, in future, I will illustrate this more, using multiple examples, including the challenges The Chronicles has faced since 2012; challenges originating from some government officials.

Invest in trust in the future and a cooperating culture

There is need to invest in trust and cooperative relations within citizens and between citizens and the government, as well as trust in the future. History shows that it is through cooperation and trust in the future that lead to credit. Elsewhere, it is credit that fuel investment in long term development and business projects. Only trust in the future and a cooperating culture invite credit and investments. In Rwanda, due to our history of cycles of violence, wars, ethnic conflicts and exile, there has been historically, low cooperation between oppressed citizens divided by successive governments along ethnic lines. This politics has led to low trust in the future and therefore, investors have, historically been less willing to invest here. This trend needs to be reversed through fighting injustice, ensuring equal access to justice and opportunities; investing more in impersonal institutions and access to services and guaranteeing robust civic engagement. 

Root-out injustice

There is also a need to institute humane and pro-people policing and local government-citizen based on good service delivery, respect for the citizenry and respect for their rights by the security personnel. For while it is good to have a strong and well equipped police force and local policing, sustainable order and security comes when individuals and communities are treated humanely and develop a perception that what the security personnel are doing is in their interest.

Rooting out injustice will require reform in the justice sector to ensure judicial independence, uprooting reported corruption in the sector and ensuring due process of the law, and changing certain laws especially the one on drug abuse that condemns young men to long prison sentences; including up to 25 years in prison.

Implementing the constitutional requirements in the political system

The constitution puts in place a creatively consensual power-sharing arrangement and politics based on dialogue under the forum for political parties. However, operationally, while the Constitution says the party in the presidency cannot have more than 50% in cabinet, the RPF still dominates in cabinet and other government institutions. Smaller parties like the Green Party and PS-Imberakuri are excluded from the executive yet they are in parliament. In addition, political actors I have talked to from within the system confirm that the forum for political does not entertain dialogue of issues initiated by smaller parties. To sustain this political system, it is important to abide by what the Constitution stipulates.

Yours Sincerely
Kayumba Christopher