Rwanda is usually characterised as “country in a hurry,” mainly by people working in development or as policy specialists.
The reason for this is that there are so many changes taking place in almost every arena, with the pace of change so rapid that for many, it gets to feel as if by the time you have internalised what they want to do or are trying to do with regard to a particular matter, chances are, they will have moved on to something else.
In other instances, they take such bold steps in their pursuit of progress that observers usually stand back and declare them foolhardy or crazy.
If you live in Rwanda and follow public affairs and government action closely, it is hardly rare to hear from observers that this or that initiative the government has embarked on has no chance in hell of succeeding.
Some initiatives simply never fly
And indeed, sometimes even the most sympathetic observers do wonder “if the government is serious” in pursuing this or that agenda.
But also if you have lived in the country long enough, you will have learnt over time that true, some initiatives simply never fly high enough before they come tumbling down, having crashed against local realities that may not have been envisaged or considered at the time of conception.
Equally, you would have learnt that there have been initiatives, dismissed outright by experts and perceptive observers in the beginning as simply unworkable, that have gone on to thrive and produce outcomes that only the boldest of Rwanda’s policy thinkers believed were possible.
There are several examples of this, including investment in hotels, mobile telephony, information and communications technology, and commercial enterprises.
Over the past almost two decades, I have wondered over and over about where Rwanda’s risk-takers find the guts to make seemingly foolhardy attempts to achieve objectives that, at first glance, look doomed to fail.
The explanation, it seems, lies in a readiness to experiment, and the proclivity deliberately to use “trial and error” as a standard method for pursuing goals that, if achieved, can propel the country to greater heights and, if not, can be abandoned in favour of new ventures, sometimes seemingly equally foolhardy ones.
There may be grounds for asking about the costs attached to this approach. They may be enormous.
However, its advocates will argue that this in itself is not reason enough to sit around and do nothing or wait until every side of an issue has been examined in detail and all possible risks and opportunities weighed.
There is, after all, an old principle: Try and fail; do not fail to try.
Some recent developments illustrate this impulse to follow instinct and not shy away from making bold decisions.
One was the decision by the government to take definitive steps to reduce and ultimately phase out imports of used clothes and shoes.
Not unlike other people who were listening or reading about the decision, the first thought to cross my mind was how Rwandans who make a living from this trade and those who depend on it to clothe their families would cope.
The public debate that emerged pretty much followed these lines.
As for the government of the United States, from where most of the imports come, the reaction was to threaten to impose taxes on Rwandan exports that have been entering the US market duty-free.
Many questions, debatable and not-so-debatable, are being asked about Rwanda’s capacity to establish and nurture a local textile and apparels industry whose products can replace the mitumbathat some Rwandans claim are the only clothes they can afford.
No hand-me-downs here, please
But the government’s mind is made up: Efforts must be made to build a local textile and apparels industry as part of its drive to promote manufacturing for export and also ensure that Rwandans who wear hand-me-downs from abroad are not condemned to doing so in perpetuity.
And just a few days ago, President Kagame launched a new car assembling plant for Volkswagen cars.
Strictly speaking there is nothing extraordinary about a car assembling plant in an African country. Motor vehicle companies have been assembling them in Africa for ages. But we are not talking just any country here.
It is Rwanda with its small size, economy and market, landlocked, and still grappling with all sorts of challenges. Which is why, in addition to making news, the VW plant has provoked quite a debate.
Again a key question is whether “these Rwandans” are serious. I doubt that even in Rwanda anyone can put hand on heart and say, with 100 per cent certainty, that this is going to be a runaway success.
But again the spirit of trial and error, of experimentation, is evident. Coming on the heels of the deal with Arsenal football club to boost its tourism drive, which has elicited some really sharp commentary among doubters and raised questions about its wisdom, it does capture in sharp relief the notion of a “country in a hurry” to get somewhere, obviously undeterred by whatever risks the bold decisions may entail.
If, as a Nigerian proverb says, fortune favours the brave, Rwanda is a good test case.
Author Frederick Golooba-Mutebi is a Kampala- and Kigali-based researcher and writer on politics and public affairs. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org