Lack of freedom of expression and fear of retribution stifle critical thinking among young Rwandans

Many young people think that to succeed in Rwanda depends more on family or other personal connections than on hard work or educational opportunities offered by the government.

Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza

By Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza

In Rwanda, 72% of the population is aged below 30. This makes the young the main asset for Rwanda. Yet young people in the country face a series of insurmountable obstacles.

Rwanda is a small and landlocked country with no natural resources. Thirty years ago, it emerged from a genocidal civil war. In spite of Rwanda registering impressive economic progress over the past three decades, it remains a low-income state and among the least developed and poorest countries in the world. It is also the most densely populated sub-Saharan African nation and highly vulnerable to climate change.

If Rwandan youth were fully invested in the future, and offered an enabling environment to maximise their potential, they could transform Rwanda into a modern, competitive, high-income state. However, if Rwandan youth are not properly empowered, they will become party to Rwanda’s constraints to development.

The Rwandan government has been creating opportunities for youth development. Among these are the National Employment Programme (NEP), with the goal of creating 200,000 non-farm jobs per year;  the Technical, Vocational Education and Training (TVET) that offers practical skills to young people, enabling them to seek employment; and the Business Development Fund (BDF) to assist young people in accessing financial services to support self-employment.

Moreover, the government has spent substantial public funds towards the creation of commercial activities, particularly in air transportation and the meeting, incentive, conferences and exhibition (MICE) domains to expand the country’s tourism sectors.

While the majority of young people I speak to recognise the government’s effort in creating opportunities for them, they are not satisfied. Their feelings are echoed in studies on Rwanda’s youth.

A 2019 youth assessment commissioned by USAID found that there was a general sense of dissatisfaction among youth in Rwanda. Many have the view that for young people to succeed depends more on family or individual connections than on hard work, training or other educational opportunities offered by the government.

The same assessment found that access to finance by youth, through the government-established Business Development Fund, is uncertain because the fund is not well adjusted to the capabilities and needs of young people. The fund requires 25% collateral, which youth say is too much.

Moreover, the creation of youth employment by the National Employment Programme is difficult to define or account for and its beneficiaries have primarily been young people based in urban or peri-urban areas of Rwanda.

This concurs with World Bank findings that most jobs created by the expanded tourism sector in Rwanda are in the city capital and districts with lower unemployment and lower poverty compared with the national average.

Consequently, the percentage of the youth population aged 15-24 living in extreme poverty is close to 40% for girls and boys. A considerable number – 32% of young people aged 16 to 30 – are not in employment, education and training. Unemployment among that population group is 22%.

About 60% of those employed, work in jobs typically defined as low productivity, including subsistence agriculture, retail and construction. According to the International Labour Organization, both working poverty and informal employment in Rwanda are high compared with the relatively high average levels found on the African continent and both are more pronounced among young people than adult workers.

With Rwanda ranking 142 out of 181 on the Global Youth Development Index, the Rwandan government must focus a lot more on development of young people.

Particular efforts are needed in human capital development, where Rwanda lags. Between 2018 – the year the Human Capital Index (HCI) was first published – and 2020, Rwanda’s ranking on the HCI has been consistently below the average for sub-Saharan African countries. Therefore, the priority should be to address challenges in areas that prevent Rwanda from developing competent human capital. These are low education standards and high levels of malnutrition among children under five years old, which stands at 33%.

In my view, the government must combine allocating more public funds with promoting accountability in institutions responsible for promoting education and overall childhood development in Rwanda. Recent statistics show that 65% of all children in Rwanda were affected by multidimensional poverty in 2019/2020. If not tackled, this will affect the rest of their development.

In addition, the government must also monitor and evaluate policies and programmes for youth development for improvement. According to the International Labour Organization, there is little evidence that this is done in Rwanda.

The ruling party has positioned itself as a champion of youth and has set up a National Youth Council (NYC) to enable youth representation in community life – at national level, but also at district, sector and cell levels.

At the same time, governance has over the past three decades evolved into a political system that suppresses political dissent, restricts pluralism and curbs civil liberty. This obviously affects the youth in Rwanda in different ways.

In 2017, a young woman, Diane Rwigara – who was 35 at the time – decided to run for president in Rwanda. She was immediately accused of inciting insurrection and fraudulently obtaining the necessary requirements for her candidacy. She was arrested and detained for a year before being acquitted of all charges after the presidential election had been completed.

Many of my key supporters have either lost their lives or disappeared while others are in prison after responding to my call to struggle for the establishment of genuine democracy, respect for human rights and rule of law in our homeland. The majority were within the youth age range.

These stories spread fear among the rest of the youth, who then abstain from challenging government policies in Rwanda. The lack of freedom of expression in Rwanda affects young people’s ability to maximise their critical thinking and to innovate.

It does not have to be this way. According to findings of the Young African Survey 2022, the optimism of Rwandan youth aged 18-24 about the direction of Rwanda has significantly declined – from 94% in 2019 to 60% in 2022.

The Rwandan government must initiate governance reforms to create an enabling environment for the youth to freely exercise their rights so they reach their full development and become a solution rather than an extra constraint on the development of Rwanda.