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A very short tale of two African nations (July 27, 2009)

Between March 2008 and March 2009 I made three visits to Rwanda and two to Kenya. Not far from each other geographically, these nations are very different in the ways they work.

With regard to ethnicity, their attitudes, customs and laws are very different indeed. In post-genocide Rwanda, under the leadership of President Paul Kagame, there is no reference to ethnic background neither in public documents nor in the public square. That omission is one element in the president’s strategy to rebuild a very broken nation where the perpetrators, often living side by side with the families of victims, far outnumber the capacity of prisons to hold them. But it was more than a quantitative decision on Kagame’s part. His charge, as he sees it, is to rebuild his nation and prepare it for economic and political progress in the 21st century. He saw in Rwanda, for all its devastation, a way out—the possibility of a new Rwanda with a culture of entrepreneurship and independence on the one hand and a firm commitment to community and interdependence on the other.

In March 2008 with President Kagame’s endorsement and the auspices of the OTF Group, an economic development consultancy working in many African nations, I conducted a roundtable discussion with Rwanda’s educational leaders and a team of academics from the US and France. The topic: The Role of Universities in Building a Culture of Civic Responsibility, Interdependence and Prosperity. One of the recommendations that emerged from the roundtable was increasing exponentially the opportunities for citizens to behave as such: discussing, advocating and acting upon Rwanda’s most pressing public issues and needs. I returned in November 2008 to introduce The New Rwanda: Prosperity and the Public Good, the handbook I conceived and edited to address that recommendation and, with the former Minister of Primary and Secondary Education, to launch the National Conversation on Prosperity and the Public Good. We are working now to get the conversation embedded in secondary schools and in NGOs throughout the country.

President Kagame’s regime is not free of critics and skeptics, but I see in him a leader who is committed not only to economic growth but also to the rise of a civic sector, which puts him in the vanguard of African leadership.

In March 2008 I also traveled to Kenya where, under the auspices of the US Embassy and the Capital Youth Caucus, a Kenyan NGO, I spoke to a number of groups that were working toward progressive change. I found a very disillusioned populace, fresh from a rigged election followed by a rash of ethnic violence which left in its wake a large number of casualties and tens of thousands of displaced persons. Anger rose and hope waned. And yet the advocates and activists for progress continued in their work. I believe that they will prevail in time—but the challenges are enormous and they are exacerbated by the culture of corruption that hovers like a dark cloud above the nation, making each step forward that much more difficult.

I believe that if those people who resorted to violence after the election—violence that was rumored to be encouraged by the political powers—believed or knew that they had a stake in their society as citizens—that their votes, their opinions and, indeed, their lives counted, there would not have been blood shed—there might have been a peaceful demonstration and a demand for honest elections.

The people I met and admired in ‘08 inspired me to go back in March 2009 and speak more strategically to those eager to join the struggle for democracy. I spoke to more people: to young leaders in Kibera, the enormous, infamous slum in Nairobi, where I was struck by their eloquence and commitment; to a conference of university students from five or six universities whose thoughts and world view had left the old Kenya behind; and to a roundtable discussion whose participants included members of the Ministry of Education and civic, corporate and religious leaders. In all instances I found impatience and disgust with the corruption and crime. The desire to find a way out of the morass was palpable. Among the people I met, there were those who would make great members of Parliament. Kenya is rich in human talent; it needs to be as rich in opportunity!

I proposed some ideas and actions that have been effective in other times and other places, for example:
1) Developing a declaration, comparable to the 1776 American Declaration of Independence and the more recent Charter 77 created in 1977 by the Czechs declaring their independence from Soviet domination and using public meetings and the media to make it known. Going public takes courage, but remaining silent and secretive is not an option. And with the revolution in communications and information technologies, it is literally impossible. The group decided to meet again and develop and implement a strategy for constructive change.
2) Educating the populace, the young especially, about the central role that citizens play in making democracy work; consider publishing as a primer in civic education the kind of handbook that we are using in Rwanda. Why not, The New Kenya: Prosperity and the Public Good?

Going public takes courage, but remaining silent and secretive is not an option. And with the revolution in communications and information technologies, it is literally impossible.

On my last day in Nairobi, I had a one hour television interview on KBS’s Good Morning Kenya with a very skilled interviewer, Josephine Lesuuda. She asked me incredibly cogent and probing questions and then opened the discussion to others via telephone; the questions came in a steady stream—many more than we were able to answer. It was clear that the subject of the citizens’ role in strengthening democracy was very much on people’s minds.

I left Nairobi later that day with hope that Kenyans will before long insist that they have a voice in rebuilding their nation; that they will not continue to tolerate the corruption and crime that make life in what might be one of Africa’s truly great cities a place of distrust and deception.

As for tribalism, the people that I spoke to would have none of it. They want to get on with their lives as Kenyans, as Africans and as people of the world.

Ngugi Wa Thiong’O, one of Kenya’s most distinguished authors, had this to say in Homecoming, published in 1972: “Tribalism is a special creation of the colonial regimes. Now there are only two tribes in Africa: the “haves” and the “have-nots.” I think that Ngugi’s wisdom applies to the world. I am an outsider and the job of transformation is one for insiders. People know that—yet they do welcome friends who are willing to be their partners in the effort. I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to make a very modest contribution to these noble struggles for the rights and responsibilities of citizenship that many of us take for granted.”

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