Rwanda’s progressive move from its disastrous history to being one of the leading economic forces on the continent is remarkable. And in that narrative one expects to find reports about how Rwanda is a repressive country, under the leadership of its president, Paul Kagame. But more remarkable is how the East African country has managed to be one of the cleanest countries in Africa.
Rwanda’s streets are safe and clean due to a combination of policies that include a plastic bag ban, national day of cleaning up, enforcement of the laws as well as a collective national consciousness of keeping the streets clean. Yet, Rwanda’s drive to promote modernity by embracing clean standards of African cities must not trump fundamental human rights.
The plastic bag ban has made Rwanda one of the cleanest countries on the continent. The ban on polythene bags since 2008 has actively led to cleaner environments within Rwanda. Plastic bags are some of the biggest pollutants in Africa. The ban on single-use plastic bags in 2008 was brought into effect through a study commissioned by the Rwandan Ministry of Environment.
The study solidly concluded that plastic bags posed a serious threat to agricultural production and contaminated the water, killing fish and causing pollution. The country even went a step further and banned the use of plastic packaging materials. Rwanda now favors using bags made from other biodegradable sources such as paper, cloth, banana leaves, and papyrus. Rwanda’s neighbors such as Kenya have also enacted plastic bag bans, but enforcement remains a huge impediment.
Another central feature of Rwanda’s cleanliness is “Umuganda.” This is a national clean-up day in the country on the last Saturday of every month. The name Umuganda stands for “coming together in common purpose” in Kinyarwanda. Communities come together to clean up their neighborhoods. Garbage was once a mainstay in Rwandese communities – with roadside rubbish piles and ditches clogged up with plastic bags. But this is not the case now. Umuganda however is not a random volunteer project.
It is a well-planned coordinated exercise by the state in which the security forces are a constant feature for enforcement purposes. Police monitor the streets and have the power to stop Rwandans who are not participating. They are made to clean up on the spot. A breach of these rules attracts fines as punishment – those who do not participate are made 5,000 francs (which is nearly $6). The average income in Rwanda is around $150.
Umuganda is a compulsory community service for able-bodied people aged 18 to 65. This monthly community service is graced by the president and cabinet members. This provides exemplary leadership and inspires a national consciousness of cleaning both the cities and the rural areas. However, as with any population, there are those who do not find Umuganda an exciting activity. It is hard to keep track of every citizen – some are excused because they are taking care of children or are ill.
Shopkeepers in Kigali complain about slow business is on Umuganda days. People who are driving are put out by the ban on driving on such days. And the harsh enforcement by the security forces sometimes makes people dissuaded from partaking in this exercise. But even though the government employs professional street cleaners, gardeners, and road crews, the ordinary citizens contribute their part to the cleanliness of communities. Umuganda people often do other community projects such as building roads, repairing houses, or cultivating vegetable gardens.
While international observers look at Rwanda condemning the heavy-handed nature of security when it comes to enforcement, the idea of cleanliness has gained traction in the national consciousness of Rwandans. Most Rwandans view it as beneficial community service and not a forced labor practice. Almost like a lifestyle as people have become used to it. The people of Rwanda have developed a national consciousness that admires and extols clean environments. And the cleanliness is not only restricted to Kigali but extends to rural areas as well.
Since the president and cabinet ministers are involved, this gives the people a sense of inclusion and enthusiasm. The order created by the leadership of Kagame is commendable. And this is despite the authoritarian reports that have been associated with his leadership. But for a country with a scarred past, i.e. the Rwandan Genocide, perhaps an insistence on stability is how things should be done. So that the society remains glued together as far as national consciousness is concerned.
Umuganda thus becomes an opportunity for the country’s leadership, from the community level to the executive level, to know what is actually unfolding in the society. This serves the purpose of maintaining order and stability. This is why Rwanda has become known as one of the safest countries on the planet. The insistence on order, security, and stability are what makes international observers say that Paul Kagame does not adhere to liberal democracy in its entirety. The high presence of the security forces in the country is an attestation to this. The “iron fist” has made Rwanda an economically viable country through stability and cleanliness.
Human Rights Watch reported that the cleanliness of Kigali’s streets and other places comes at a cost. People who are considered “undesirables” – homeless people, beggars, prostitutes, street vendors, and others accused of “deviant behavior” - are removed from the streets and locked up in detention centers. In 2014, Rwanda’s Minister of Justice Johnston Busingye responded to these claims saying that these centers are not “detention centers” but centers for “social emergency assistance,” based on Rwanda’s “philosophy of rehabilitation rather than unnecessary incarceration.”
It is clear that Kagame has not adopted liberal democracy in its purest sense as dictated by the global north. But the fact that Rwanda is dubbed as “investor-friendly” shows the neo-liberal path that Kagame has taken in attempting to improve the economic status of his country. Private capital is courted to Rwanda through the clean cities and other progressive reforms – commonly known as investor-friendly policies. All the while maintaining his position as the sole guardian/higher moral authority of Rwanda. In attempts to please foreign investors and businesses, the local people end up getting prejudiced. This is how you end up with the prostitutes, informal street vendors, beggars, petty criminals, and homeless people because employment opportunities have become scarce. All are being taken up by foreign capital.
In Rwanda’s efforts of keeping up with modernity and clean society, it should continue to take care of its citizens who may be prejudiced by these capitalist changes in the economy. The state should ensure that these people are afforded the basic fundamental rights – healthcare, employment opportunities, water, and education. Kagame has done an exceptional job at reviving Rwanda but must make sure that the country keeps prioritizing its people as part of its organic development agenda aimed at the true transformation of the economy for a reasonably just and equitable society.
At the same time, other African countries should take notes from Rwanda when it comes to achieving cleaner communities. Pollution is a big feature of the African landscape, especially in cities – which are still modeled on colonial urban dynamics. Cleanliness should be a top priority for African governments so that the communities remain healthy and robust. Pollution threatens Africa’s environment and action must be taken to avert this.