Rwanda cleans up ahead of post-genocide elections

Taipei Times


Monday, Jan 12, 2004,Page 9

Rwanda is tidying up its image for a year in which the tiny central African country will come under international scrutiny on the tenth anniversary of the 1994 genocide when 800,000 people were killed.

Commemoration ceremonies and a summit of the New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD) -- an economic rescue plan for the continent -- are due to take place in the capital Kigali early this year, shining a spotlight on the city.

The government has begun a national clean-up campaign, starting at street-level, with potholes being filled in around Kigali, brick sidewalks being laid along the airport road and the city's roundabouts being landscaped and decorated.

Residents have welcomed the clean-up, but moves like harsh punishments for traffic offenders and rounding up street children have proved controversial, with critics suggesting the makeover throws only a thin veil over deeper problems.

Rwanda's first elections since the genocide were marred by allegations of intimidation of opposition supporters by the government of President Paul Kagame, who won 95 percent of the vote held last August.

Kagame, who led a rebel army that ended the genocide, has seen his own image suffer from his army's involvement in a civil war in neighboring Congo in recent years, while the task of ethnic reconciliation remains a huge challenge.

Seeking to present the best possible image of Rwanda, the government is putting the finishing touches on important genocide memorial sites in advance of April's anniversary -- many of which display the bones of thousands of victims.

"Having a clean country and capital suggests that the government is also clean, that there's a lack of corruption, which is something we've been proving over the last four or five years," government spokesman Joseph Bideri said.

Although still struggling to recover from the social and economic devastation wrought by the 1994 genocide, Rwanda has the lowest level of corruption in east Africa, according to a December report by the international auditing firm KPMG.

A UN panel of experts has repeatedly accused Rwanda of involvement in the massive looting of resources like gold and diamonds from Congo. Rwanda denies the allegations.

A nation of lush green hills, picturesque lakes and looming volcanoes, Rwanda has long offered tours to see rare mountain gorillas and national parks, but its status as an international travel destination ended with the genocide.

In an effort to draw visitors back, the government hired a British public relations company to promote Rwandan tourism at the World Travel Market in London last November.

A flashy new hotel charging US$75 per night per person has just opened in the Akagera national park in eastern Rwanda and a new Intercontinental Hotel, the country's first five-star accommodation, is scheduled to open within weeks.

The Intercontinental and its conference center will host the NEPAD summit on good governance, expected to draw more than a dozen African heads of state to Kigali in late February.

For some residents, a heavy-handed approach to enforcing road safety ahead of the summit is symptomatic of a government long accused of autocratic tendencies.

More than 400 vehicles were impounded by the police over one weekend for traffic violations, including speeding.

Many Kigali drivers have complained of exaggerated fines, police harassment and of being imprisoned without charge.

"The tendency towards corporal punishment is barbaric ... some policemen actually punish traffic defaulters by caning them," one resident wrote in a letter to The New Times, a pro-government bi-weekly newspaper.

"It's obvious the government has no money and is doing this crackdown just to get some cash," said another irate Kigali resident who did not want his name used.

Rwanda suffered its worst economic growth in seven years in 2003 and called for greater donor support in this year's budget.

The rounding up and detention of hundreds of Kigali's street kids, many of them genocide or AIDS orphans, has raised concern among aid agencies worried that the children are being held against their will and treated poorly.

"Rounding up street kids is an African response to the problem, but it doesn't solve anything," said a Rwandan nun who works with street kids and who did not want her name published.

"They hit us hard in there and fed us bad food. The police beat me for nothing," said a teenage street girl who was held in a government facility and who was too afraid to give her name.

Others have lesser concerns and lament the recent order that Kigali bars and nightclubs close at 10pm on weeknights, dampening the already staid atmosphere of the capital.

For the government, the strict measures remain an important part of recovering from the havoc of the genocide, when Hutu extremists annihilated some 800,000 Tutsis and Hutu moderates in one of the most efficient massacres in history.

"It's all part of our development plan for our country as a whole. New hotels and better, safer roads and so on all have to do with economic development," government spokesman Bideri said.