Avoid the palm trees if you know what is good for you

First, let me belatedly wish all my Muslim brothers and sisters a wonderful Eid. I’m proud to live in a nation that respects the religious beliefs of even the smallest minority of its citizens. The feeling of equality and respect that this kind of understanding engenders in citizens is worth the loss of man-hours and productivity; building a truly all-inclusive society, irrespective of religious beliefs is paramount. And truth be told, there is nothing wrong with a little rest every once in awhile for the rest of us.

I read something in this paper on Saturday that caught my attention. Insurance companies are urging Kigali City Council (KCC) to review the manner in which motorists are punished for knocking down any of the palm trees that line our streets. Presently, if you knock a palm tree down your car is confiscated until you pay a one million franc fine. Honestly, the entire thing is confusing, if not slightly illegal in my opinion.

If we are paying ‘fines’ for knocking down palm trees then we are dealing with issues pertaining to vandalism of public property, which is a criminal law issue. I say this because making a person pay one million francs for knocking down one tree is obviously an attempt to deter any such possibility. But, if KCC is looking at this issue in terms of vandalism, then they must also factor in general tenets of criminal law, which include the physical and moral element. In criminal law, it’s not enough to have committed the act, which in this case in knocking down a tree (physical element). There must also be the moral element, which in this case would be negligence, drunkenness or simply bad driving on the part of the vehicle owner. However, let’s throw in various scenarios that I think haven’t been studied.

What would happen if a driver swerved into a tree to save the life of a child, who bolted into the street running after a football? Or if the driver was clipped from behind by another car and slammed into a tree as a result? Or simply the brakes jammed as they sometimes do? Would the poor driver then have to deal with a million franc fine as well? How fair is that…and forget fair, how legal is that?

And if it’s not an issue of vandalism and simply an issue of paying back damages, then I must ask what tree is worth one million francs? A magic tree maybe. If compensation is about paying back what was damaged in the first place, then why aren’t we paying the 300,000 francs that experts believe the trees are worth, instead of a hefty one million francs?

I honestly hope that I never get into an accident involving a palm tree because truth be told I will not be able to rustle up a million francs just like that. And Lord help you if you knock down two trees at once. It would be extremely tragic if your vehicle ends up being auctioned because you hit a tree. Where is the fairness in that? Let’s not forget that it’s from OUR taxes that KCC gets the monies to plant and maintain these trees: treat us with the respect we deserve.

I’m not saying that people should be allowed to knock down trees helter-skelter. However, there must a proper and well thought plan that involves our insurance companies and doesn’t unfairly target us, the general public.

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Gaddafi will become a footnote in history, but who will be next?

Colonel Gaddafi is a dictator and totally deserves all the humiliation he’s getting right now; including his stash of Condoleezza Rice pictures. The Libyan people have spoken and the bell has tolled for him and his cabal of supporters. The people of Libya deserve a government that they find legitimate and they have every right to begin armed insurrection to overthrow a leader they choose not to have. The leadership in any country must be governed by the will of the electorate, and when this is lost change in government is the natural order of things.

When the African Union (AU) met this week in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia to discuss the Libya situation, it refused to recognize the NTC (National Transitional Council) as the legitimate representatives of the Libyan people.  But the AU hasn’t spoken in one voice. Rwanda has supported the NTC and so has Egypt, Tunisia. The schism in the AU ranks is simply a symptom of the complexity of international law vis-à-vis facts on the ground. In very simplistic language, International law dictates that for a government to be recognised by other members of the global community it must be in control of its territory and able to project its power over its territory. Therefore, if we follow the letter of the law, Gaddafi’s government is still able to have its representative at the UN speak on behalf of the Libyan people; but of course this isnt happening any more. This brings me to my next point.

While a government might rant and rave all it likes, if it’s being forced to address its people in the dead of the night and squash rumors of the capture of its leaders, it’s in big trouble. And the Gaddafi is in HUGE trouble. Here are the facts of the ground: he’s lost his own presidential compound, his ministers are like rats jumping off a sinking ship and no one expects him to survive the next couple of days. His troops are fighting a rearguard action and his last hope is that the tribesmen will ride in to save the day (they won’t).

Each side has valid points and I cannot say which one is correct. The issue of what legitimacy means in international affairs in something that is close to Rwanda’s heart. If you may recall, right in the middle of the fastest genocide in history, the genocidal regime had a seat in the UN Security Council. That scandal is something that the UN hasn’t been able to get over, in my mind at least. And that’s before I even get to UNAMIR. So, obviously the international system has its flaws when it comes to recognizing ‘legitimate’ governments. It’s cumbersome and it needs a radical rethink.

However, in this instance I am uncomfortable with the entire Libya issue. There are too many geo-political interests involved here and honestly, I detect that the lure of oil is dictating the actions of NATO. In fact, the price of crude oil has fallen since the rebels entered Tripoli. Is that just a coincidence?  In the world where ‘might is right’ and a lot of the natural resources are found in poor nations, will we see an increase of ‘democratic’ rebellions?  I mean, let’s be honest here. Everyone, from the British SAS to the American CIA has played an active role in the formation and consolidation of the NTC. And if you think that someone isnt going to pay them back for the ‘assistance rendered’ you’re naïve.

Ban this word, quick!

“Ihangane”. Have you heard that word today? I certainly have and I bet you have as well in the last couple of days. “Bear with it”, with a shrug added for good measure, are the words that irate customers hear whenever something goes wrong. Honestly I’m sick of it. Whether it’s from a civil servant explaining why a document cannot be found or a businessperson explaining why they can’t deliver something on time, ihangane is a phrase that I believe should be expunged from our lexicon.

Just in the last two days I’ve had two ‘ihangane’ incidents. I am addicted to my Blackberry. It’s more or less my personal home computer, social media tool, telephone and email manager; to call it a luxury in my line of work would be a fallacy of the highest order. So, when I can’t use it I’m lost. Sadly, I’ve been left up a creek without a paddle on too many occasions to count by MTN. I don’t want to kick this telecom company while its down but I’m honestly sick and tired of getting apology SMS’s, especially when I’m paying quite a lot of money for this service. While I can understand that all the technology that’s involved in making and receiving phone calls on mobile phones is man-made and therefore fallible, I demand more for my money’s worth. Instead of sending me an SMS that is telling me to ‘ihangane’, why don’t you give me my money back? If I’m paying for month-long Blackberry services, doesn’t it mean that I should get my money’s worth? Luckily for MTN, we aren’t a litigious society because if we were I’m sure that someone would take them to court for failing their contractual obligations. Ihangane simply isnt good enough for a multinational that prides itself on helping ‘Africa talk’.

On Monday I drove to town to do some shopping but before I could do that I had to pass by an ATM. Ecobank, where I do the majority of my banking, prides itself on the number of ATM’s it has around the country. So much so that it’s main branch smack in the middle of town closes at 6pm, instead of 8pm as before, because their ATM’s can dispense money automatically. There is only one problem; it’s a rarity to find them working simultaneously. In fact, instead of finding at least one working, on Monday afternoon none of the ones downtown worked. Not the ATM at City Plaza, at the ENGEN petrol station near Radio Rwanda or the ones at the Ecobank headquarters. I was frustrated, especially because I couldn’t buy groceries, but I didn’t even bother complaining. Why? Because I had tried to do that but was told, ‘ihangane’.

While I agree that it might seem unfair to use this platform to air my personal grievances just because I can, these two companies certainly aren’t the only ones guilty of selling people short. And expecting them to simply take it and ‘come back later’. However, this is an issue of service delivery, fulfilling obligations and seeking perfections. For this nation of ours to be the country we all dream, we have to stop making excuses… and expecting people to simply accept them when we do. Take some responsibility, do what you say you will and if you can’t have a great reason why. But whatever you do, don’t tell me to ‘ihangane’, especially when I’m paying my hard-earned money. If you want my money, value me.

Learn Mandarin, it will be the global language soon

I’m surprised that there wasn’t more fanfare in the local media when Gao Hucheng came calling. Don’t know him? That’s a shame. He is the International Trade Representative of the Peoples Republic of China and vice-Commerce minister to boot. Jetting into the country on Wednesday with a delegation of twelve officials, he signed a raft of deals with the Rwandan government that included about 18 million dollars in grants and interest-free loans. But what piqued my interest wasn’t what was signed but rather the overall message that emanated from both sides.

Addressing the Chinese, Foreign Minister Mushikiwabo said “The Government has a clear understanding that meaningful and sustainable development can only result from private business engagement. It is in this regard that I wish to suggest that our bilateral cooperation should concentrate on efforts to promote Chinese investment in Rwanda”. To which the Trade Representative replied, “China will facilitate investment in key sectors in Rwanda such as mining, ICT and infrastructure. We will start new projects in various areas ranging from vocational schools, cooperation in the pharmaceutical sector and solar energy.”

The belief that ‘trade not aid’ will catapult Rwanda into middle-income country status is something that has been taken to heart. And although presently Rwanda-Sino trade is up to 80 million dollars, it certainly can do better. With probably the biggest reserves of foreign exchanges in the world and ranked ahead of the United Kingdom and Japan in terms of providing foreign direct investment, China can only become a better and better prospect for Rwanda.  But to be able to do that we have to have a competitive advantage that no other potential investment target has. We don’t have the minerals of DR Congo nor do we have the other advantages that other EAC countries have. I’m not saying that we don’t have competitive advantages (our ranking in the World Bank Doing Business Reports prove that), but we need something that no other nation can provide.  I suggest Mandarin.

It’s almost impossible to do business without communication and although the international language of business is English, how long will that remain? The most widely spoken language in the world is Mandarin, not English. So while I see English schools sprouting all over the city, I don’t know of one school teaching Mandarin.

We need business people who can enter boardrooms in Beijing and make multi-million dollar deals, we need civil servants able to negotiate their counterparts and we need students able to study in the prestigious universities and colleges.  We must be able to tap into China’s phenomenal growth.

The Chinese government is seen in the West as a predatory animal hell-bent on gobbling up our mineral wealth while thwarting our democratic aspirations. Here is a huge fact check. We, Africans, have the choice whether we become real partners in our own development, or vassal states.  Rwanda is aiming to become a real partner. But we need to be able to ‘talk the talk’, and not just walk the walk.

What is going on with this weather?

It is supposed to be hot and extremely dry right now in Kigali but, unless you live in a cave, you are probably burnishing an umbrella as you go about your day’s business. I’m not an expert in meteorology but what I am an expert in is Kigali’s weather patterns. And this rain, right in the middle of August, is strange to me. Thank goodness I’m merely a civil servant and therefore not victimized by changes of weather. But can you imagine what our farmers are going through?

Subsistence agriculture, the livelihood of the vast majority of the Rwandan populace, is an occupation that relies on the vagaries of the weather like no other. There isnt an insurance policy that they can depend on and once the harvests fail, that’s it. With barely any food reserves in their rudimentary barns, the business of the weather is life and death for the Rwandan farmer. So, I ask this question, does anyone know why the rains are coming down so early?

How many of you follow the weather report on Rwanda Television? Next question: how many of you actually believe what the weatherman/woman tells you? When I was a lot younger I remember watching people in North America watching the news and obsessing about the weather. Know why? Because invariably, the weather person was spot on. You would know, just from watching one news bulletin, the week’s weather. What I would give to have an equally reliable weather forecast.

This kind of information is extremely important because, like it or not, this affects us. While I can afford to get showered on, the farmers in Bugesera can’t afford a surprise rainy season. For generations now, we’ve had two rainy seasons at about the same time. So, when the seasons are out of kilter farmers simply don’t know what to do. Here is the question I would like to ask the experts in the Ministry of Agriculture and the Metrology Office. Is this rain part of a new, earlier rainy season or are we merely getting some relief from the dust before the sun beats down again? Because if it is, people need to know.

Climate change is a reality, notwithstanding the nonsense of the Tea Party wackos in the United States. And while climate is, unlike mere weather, measured over decades, maybe what we are seeing right now is the start of a new climate pattern in the region. In the Horn of Africa there is a huge drought, unlike any we have ever seen. And in Rwanda, we have rain at a time we have rarely seen. I’m not being a harbinger of global climate catastrophe, but information is power. And unless some is forthcoming I, along with many fellow citizens, will be up a creek without a paddle. We need a good explanation, should we start planting or should we wait?

Today, one of the most powerful men in the world is paying us a visit. Gao Hucheng, the vice-Minister of Commerce and International Economic Cooperation of the Peoples Republic of China is making his first trip to our country.  The Chinese government is seen in the West as a predatory animal hell-bent on gobbling up African minerals and thwarting our aspirations for democracy. Here is a huge fact check. The West is that predatory animal still (as the good people of Iraq know), and the issue of non-interference in our political process is actually a boost to our democracy and not a hindrance. For example, if some people had their way, Mugabe would be sitting in a prison cell in The Hague.  However, he’s in Harare still and guess what? Inch by inch, Zimbabwe is getting out of the mess it found itself in. China is good partner in our development. If we choose to, that is.

Why do you think you are too good to make money?

You never know what a day will bring. Sometimes before you fall asleep you look back at what you’ve done and learnt that day and realize that you’ve done and learnt nothing of note; days like that are so depressing to me. However, every once in awhile, you look back and smile in the knowledge that you’ve learnt something that makes you really think and challenge the perceptions you had. I had one of those days Friday night at a friend’s farewell party.

I found myself talking to someone who did a study on the university students and the challenges that Rwanda faces in higher education. It’s an open secret that higher education as we know it will have to undergo serious reform. We have thousands of high school students graduating every year and each and every single one of them expects to go to university and earn a degree. On the governments bill. However, the crux of the matter is that the government simply cannot keep paying the bills for higher education. Cutbacks in education spending are happening all over the world and Rwanda, unfortunately, is no different.

First SFAR, the higher education financing authority, has to find a way to make graduates pay their student loans. The only way that SFAR will continue to finance Rwandan students is if they can get back some of the monies they’ve given to people like me. That’s just a first step. SFAR, by itself, cannot finance everyone’s dream of a university degree. Eventually, people will have to find a way to finance their own education. That sounds pretty cut and dry doesn’t it? If you want a university degree, you find a way to pay for it, right? Wrong.

The lady that I talked to told me that Rwandan students simply refuse to think about paying their way through university. In developed countries, the average waiter and waitress that serves you a drink at the bar is university student. The so-called menial jobs, which pay minimum wages, are often filled by brilliant college students. Why? Because they simply need the money. With university tuition fees in the regions of the hundreds of thousands of dollars, they need to do whatever they can. My new found friend worked two minimum-wage jobs concurrently to pay her way.

This financial pinch is found in Rwanda as well. Obviously. Back when I was at the National University of Rwanda, we had a thing called ‘macqui’. This was when two people shared a single bed. Now, I must tell you, the beds in Butare are strictly made for a single person, a thin person at that. The saddest thing I ever saw was two grown men, pot bellies and all, sharing a tiny bed. They did so because the government stipend of twenty-five thousand francs was simply not enough to cater for all their needs. They couldn’t afford the luxury of their own beds. I refused to be a part of the whole macqui culture. I got a gig doing some writing. And that is how I could afford to rent a small pad.

Obviously people haven’t caught on the whole ‘work your way through school’ thing. I was shocked when my party companion told me that studies showed that university students wouldn’t even entertain the idea of doing menial jobs to sustain their university dream. It didn’t matter that they simply had no choice. They felt that it was ‘beneath’ them to be seen serving drinks in a restaurant.

This false sense of ‘superiority’ will be the death of them. Dear student, you aren’t too good to work- that’s simply a pipe dream. The real world demands that you do. Your very future will depend on how well you grasp this.

Gacaca is being willfully misunderstood

The curse of innovation is upon us once more. Gacaca is in the news again and is being looked at negatively. This time however, I was really bemused by the source of the story; it came all the way from New Zealand.

Now I know that they Kiwi’s are known for all sorts of things-great rugby teams, sheep and Sir Edmund Hillary. However, they are not known for being experts in Central African issues and why would they? they live on the ends of the earth.

Sadly, Daniel Howden bite off a bit more than he could chew when he penned an article titled ‘Genocide courts have failed, says aid donor’ in the New Zealand Herald.

But I guess it wasn’t his fault, he had an ‘impeccable’ source; Jica, the Japanese aid donor.

A researcher working for Jica, Shinichi Takeuch, wrote in a report titled The disputable record of state-building in Rwanda’ that the Gacaca Courts were handing out “victor’s justice”, and “have done nothing to ease underlying ethnic tensions in the country”.

I can honestly say that I believe that Gacaca is being unfairly maligned. Gacaca was instituted for two main reasons: to punish the perpetrators of genocide and crimes committed during the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi and to help the healing process.

Now, these two goals were not, and are not expected to be accomplished at the same period of time. The court cases, which ended in December last year, took care of the culture of impunity by trying up to 1.2million cases. But that was, and would always be the easy part.

The most complex bit of the Gacaca innovation was whether it would start helping the healing process. Certainly I believe that the process was helped by seeing justice done; however the Minister of Justice himself would tell you that the process of reconciliation is an ongoing exercise.

So, when, less than a year after the Gacaca courts wound up, people start  attempting to assess its impact in terms of lowering ‘tensions’ I think it’s unfortunate.

Looking at the report that Shinichi Takeuch penned, I came to realize that he was simply mirroring Human Rights Watch and its own assessment of Gacaca.

An assessment that was torn apart by none other than the Dutch Ambassador to Rwanda.

The process of reconciliation cannot be measured in months but rather years, decades and generations. But even if it can’t be measured in months, it’s simply ridiculous to believe that the “tensions” in the country haven’t decreased.

Are people living side by side? Are they sharing beer and goat brochette? Are they working side by side during Umuganda?

To look at Gacaca alone without looking at the other efforts is wrong and outright buffoonery. Gacaca is simply a part of the overall reconciliation strategy. How can you ignore TIG, Ingando and Itorero?

How can you ignore what is happening in the classrooms, where students from diverse backgrounds are coming together to learn?

I hate to summarily dismiss things; after all, Jica and Shinichi Takeuch sacrificed time and money to study the Gacaca. However, I think that I wouldn’t have done so if this report was written thirty years from now.

Maybe the report would say exactly the same thing, but it would be a lot more credible. I understand just how complex the issue of restorative justice is, but there is no need to be lazy. Take your time Mr. Takeuch. Don’t be contrary just because it’s the ‘done’ thing.