Monday, October 26, 2015

Memories of Past Disunity as Precondition for Present Unity

Over the past few years, some international media outlets are starting to label Rwanda as "the Singapore of Africa."  On the surface, the idea is ridiculous.  The international commercial and financial depot that is Singapore is at least 60 times as wealthy as Rwanda in terms of per capita income, and the two economies share little in terms of economic structure and development history.  Rwanda's landlocked nature, and the fact that it is surrounded by neighbors with dismal infrastructure, means that strictly following the Singapore model will get Rwanda nowhere.

But looking beyond the obvious discrepancies in economic development, the similarities become much more convincing.  Both have strong top-down mandate from a popular, long-term leader to keep the country clean, secure, and organized.  Both invests heavily in creating an orderly environment for foreign businesses to get established.  Both claim to be democratic but elections often so one-sided that one-party rule and popularity of the sitting head of the state are more or less reaffirmed over and over through the ballot box.

Perhaps the biggest similarity, though, is a constant sense of crisis that governments in both countries instill in the populace so that there is an additional layer of legitimacy for long-term rule.  For Singapore, it is the threat of poorer Muslim neighbors who can destabilize the tiny nation demographically and religiously, not to mention militarily and economically.  Internally, there is also the need to fight off centrifugal forces of a diverse population that have little linguistic or cultural means to bind together.  The combination of internal and external factors begs for strong leadership.

The same is true in Rwanda.  Externally, it faces civil war-verging political instabilities in Burundi to the South and the Congo to the west.  Kenya to the northeast is hit with Islamic terror periodically, while Uganda has not completely settled its rebel activities in the north.  Internally, the country is still patching wounds from the horrifying memories of genocide two decades ago.  For survivors, the need to create institutions that prevent anything similar from recurring weighs heavily on the agenda of a cash-strapped government that is still questioned sometimes as a Tutsi minority rule.

To deal with diversity at home, both the Singaporean and Rwandan governments seem to take a "patriotic education" approach.  Almost propaganda-like messages are sent to the general public, reminding them that their status as one citizenry is much more significant than ethnic identity, and to celebrate the nation often required halting conversations on racial comparisons.  Rwanda, on this front, has gone a step even further, systematically erasing past ethnic identities in order to create a new unified Rwandan racial identity in its place.

Yet, without a bit of adversity to back them up, such campaigns of patriotic education can easily become butt of cynical jokes among the citizenry.  After all, any conscientious citizen knows that the government is just as capable of making mistakes as it is to achieve something positive.  As such, it is difficult for the citizen to remain 100% patriotic (i.e. supportive of the government's actions) 100% of the time.  Only truly memorable and adverse circumstances of the Rwandan genocide magnitude can influence traumatized citizens to overlook some of the less salient portions of government actions.

Indeed, the government has been extremely smart in tapping this process of healing as a means of acting unilaterally.  Because the government has been able to provide a sense of stability and recovery (most often visually through infrastructural improvements), the citizenry has quietly given the government an ability to act without much resistance in implementing what the current leadership sees as the future vision of the country.  For many (and the author included), this vision is vague and not articulated in public.  But no one seems to mind the lack of public participation in setting it.

Although powerful when the memories of past trauma still run deep, the ability to appeal for national unity behind an unchanging government through evocation of the painful past will eventually run its course.  A new generation will grow up without firsthand knowledge of a time where violence expressions of disunity was commonplace, and the youth will one day depend greater diversity on the political scene, most often with their own ability to participate more.  This is already beginning to happen in Singapore as cracks emerge in family politics, and similar can be expected in Rwanda.

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