Louise Mushikiwabo tells GW audience that lifting border restrictions and collaborating with other countries are keys to Rwanda's economic growth.
By Tamara Jones
Forsaking the isolationism that set its devastating genocide in motion, Rwanda is now reaping “truly revolutionary benefits” by opening its borders and collaborating with its neighbors, the country’s minister of foreign affairs said Monday at the George Washington University.
Louise Mushikiwabo discussed regional integration and emerging opportunities in East Africa at the invitation of the Elliott School of International Affairs, whose dean, Amb. Reuben E. Brigety II, introduced her as “truly one of the leading lights of Africa today.”
“We want to create space for Rwandans to see the world and encourage others to see us,” Ms. Mushikiwabo told students, faculty and guests in the Lindner Family Commons. “Rwanda literally means ‘the universe’ in our language, so most Rwandans,” she joked, “don’t know we’re a small country.”
Improved transportation, burgeoning business ventures and an influx of skilled foreign workers have helped set Rwanda on the path to becoming a middle-income country within a few years, Ms. Mushikiwabo said.
“Our goal at some point is to get rid of aid,” she said, noting that Rwanda’s dependence on donor funds has dropped from 96 percent to 37 percent in the two decades since the genocide.
Rwanda is one of six countries involved in the Northern Corridor Integration Projects (NCIP), which seek to spur economic development in East Africa by easing labor and immigration restrictions while building a stronger joint infrastructure to support the member nations.
One of NCIP’s notable achievements so far, Ms. Mushikiwabo said, has been to drastically cut the time it takes cargo to make its way between landlocked Rwanda’s capital of Kigali and Kenya’s port of Mombasa.
Cargo now spends only five or six days in transit compared to 22 days just eight months ago, the minister said, adding that the improvement cost nothing. It was the result of a joint effort to connect customs services and do away with excessive weighstations, police checks and lengthy border waits.
Ms. Mushikiwabo said studies are still under way for a proposed standard gauge railway that would ease international trade by linking Kigali to Mombasa and to Tanzania’s port city of Dar es Salaam. The Kigali-Mombasa route is targeted to open in 2019.
Air travel already is easier with the abolishment of visas for all African passport holders and the opening of airspace between different countries, Ms. Mushikiwabo said, and Rwanda’s national airline “has grown tremendously.” Tourism alone has doubled in the last four years, with 1.2 million people visiting Rwanda each year.
The idea of East African integration was met with initial wariness by the Rwandan people, the foreign minister admitted, but security concerns and fears that more-qualified neighbors would take away jobs have proven unfounded.
“We immediately saw the benefits of competition,” she said. “Banking grew very fast, and we received lots of people with skills we need.” Fellow East Africans have set up 808 “economic undertakings” in Rwanda, she added.
Digitizing and linking intelligence services improved security, and “the number of non-Rwandans arrested for doing funny business is less than 2 percent” since 2013, Ms. Mushikiwabo noted.
Electricity is another top priority in Rwanda’s development, and the government of President Paul Kagame “has been investing heavily and smartly” in alternative power sources, according to Ms. Mushikiwabo.
Because the dry spells and heavy rains brought about by global warming make water levels too inconsistent for Rwanda to continue to rely on hydropower, she said, “we’re looking at combining solar, geo, hydro and any other kind of energy.”
Elliott School Professorial Lecturer David Shinn, former ambassador to Burkina Faso and Ethiopia and moderator of the discussion, asked whether the new integration was a revival of the “old days” of common currency and services in Kenya and Tanzania.
“Back then, the benefits were not very clear,” Ms. Mushikiwabo replied. “It took time to actually sell integration to our people. We did it with radio programs, road shows…. For integration to work, it has to be owned by our people.”