It’s the Mayor’s fault there aren’t more tourists in Gisenyi

Last weekend, I left the hustle and bustle of our dusty (in my neighbourhood anyway) capital city, and fled to the fresher, quieter environs of the shores of Lake Kivu for two days of rest and relaxation. I’ve been to many a pretty town but I doubt whether there are prettier places in the world than the stretch between the Kivu Serena and the Congolese border town of Goma. With the cool lake breeze blowing, the smell of flowering trees and shrubs enveloping you and colonial-style houses giving it all a touch of French Riviera glamour, one would think that the two kilometre stretch would be full of weekend visitors. But that wasn’t the case. Other than a few labourers and hawkers carrying basins of some strange regional delicacy on their heads, the only people I saw who were obviously visitors was one young family taking a walk on the same boulevard as I was.

According to statistics from the Rwanda Development Board (RDB), tourism earnings reached $252 million; but as I looked around me, while sipping a chilled drink on the shoreline, how much could it be? RDB has done an awesome job marketing Rwanda to the global community and the just-concluded Kwita Izina ceremony in Kinigi last weekend is an example of this. However, I must ask, should our entire tourist marketing strategy be formulated by RDB CEO John Gara, Rica Rwigamba and the rest of their team? I don’t think so.

The Local Government ministry repeats one mantra, day in and out, ‘decentralisation’. So, why isnt tourism the responsibility of provincial and district management? If these entities can control their own budgets then it’s not too much to ask them to market themselves as well. For example, Las Vegas, Miami and Atlantic City, all tourist cities, market themselves directly to the American and international market, spending millions of dollars on advertising and event planning. While the districts of Karongi and Rubavu (Kibuye and Gisenyi respectively) might not have millions at their disposal, they must understand that to make money, you must spend money.  Who has EVER seen an ad in ANY form of media extolling the merits of spending a day or two in these towns? Not I. I think that it’s high time that the leadership in both towns stop taking their economic progress from granted. Yes, their tourism numbers are higher than ever before, but instead of patting themselves on the back, they should see what they need to do to spread the word. Perhaps a well-coordinated media campaign might be a start.

Okay, so let’s pretend that the district authorities don’t have the money to purchase a whole page in The New Times, why don’t they, working with event planners, GIVE us reasons to visit? Kigali has the FESPAD African music festival and the KigaliUP! concert, but what does Gisenyi have? It has pristine beaches, but how many beach and waterfront events have they staged? None.

It’s not only the lack of marketing and event planning that is hindering the growth of our tourist towns but also an issue of a lack of leadership. I feel that the leadership in our resorts have left tourism to the hotel owners. They must encourage, collaborate, and in extreme cases, lead.

I’m pretty sure that there are lots of people who can help make these towns tourist Mecca’s. All they need is the go-ahead. I am throwing my hat into the ring; I have loads of ideas. If Rubavu District wants to pick my brains, email me.

On to a totally different topic, Human Rights Watch is lobbying against Rwanda’s election unto the Security Council, despite the AU’s endorsement of its candidature. Now, I will not say much about its latest noise except this, where was the ‘rights’ group’s condemnation when Rwanda campaigned for and received Security Council membership in 1994?

The DRC is playing a game of political charades and Rwanda is caught in the middle. Tough luck

I’ve sorely tried not to mention anything about the DRC-Rwanda-MONUC-Human Rights Watch tango because, truth be told, it’s getting rather old. The ‘secret’ internal MONUC memo that was breathlessly publicised over the last weeks accusing Rwanda of arming and involving itself in the M23 shenanigans was then followed by the Human Rights Watch’s report, accusing Rwanda of letting Bosco Ntaganda sip tea in Kinigi without arresting him on behalf of the ICC (never mind that Rwanda isnt a signatory of the Rome Statute that established the ICC, giving it no obligation to heed any ICC indictments) among other accusations.

But I refused to comment on the two events simply because I didn’t think they warranted any more newsprint than they had garnered already. But everything changed when our erstwhile ‘allies’ backed up the nonsensical MONUC and HRW claims on Saturday, with DRC Government Spokesperson, Lambert Mende, accusing Rwanda of training the 200-odd M23 mutineers.

I could choose to rubbish these outlandish claims. In fact, that would be the easy thing to do. I could say, look at the facts. What does Rwanda stand to gain in this conflict? The conflict will take valuable military resources away from the fight against the FDLR and other anti-Rwanda militia groups, the tension will increase the number of Congolese refugees in the country, putting a strain of our meagre resources, the lucrative Rubavu-Goma cross-border trade will suffer, Rwanda’s name will be dragged in the mud and for what? To involve itself in a piddling little domestic wrangle about wages and prior agreements? No. I refuse to believe that our foreign policy is so unashamedly stupid.

So, I won’t try to prove Rwanda’s innocence. Rather I think we need to examine why the DRC government saw it fit to bandy these accusations around. Just like I don’t think that Rwanda’s foreign policy is based on buffoonery, I also don’t believe that Congo’s is. So, if the men and women sitting on hallowed halls in Kinshasa aren’t idiots, then one must ask, what do they stand to gain from these accusations?

To answer this question, one must stop looking at eastern Congo and concentrate on Kinshasa.

Only a few months ago the Congolese president was fighting for his political existence. In an extremely hard-fought presidential election, he polled 48.94% of the votes cast against the 32.33% that Etienne Tshisekedi polled in an election that both the Carter Centre and the Archbishop of Kinshasa, Cardinal Laurent Monsengwo Pasinya said had too many irregularities to “assume that the results reflected the will of the people”.

Among Mr. Tshisekedi’s various electoral strategies was to lambast Kabila’s overtures to Rwanda (including the extremely successful Umoja Wetu joint military exercise that almost broke the back of the FDLR), raising the spectre of Rwandan domination in Congolese affairs; some of the veteran politician’s supporters went so far as to question Kabila’s nationality, calling him a Rwandan mole.

Despite Kabila’s Election Day win, the atmosphere has remained toxic and he is fighting to regain some semblance of political legitimacy. Throw in the fact that despite the obvious wealth in the country poverty is increasing, civil servants are not receiving their salaries, insecurity is continuing and you can see that he was being pushed in a corner. So, out came the red herring: Rwanda. The xenophobic hysteria that the accusations will cause is aimed at giving him some breathing room to manoeuvre.

Honestly, it’s a smart, though Machiavellian, stratagem. Rwanda will complain and voice it’s fury but (and let’s be honest here) it won’t freeze diplomatic and political contact. Its leadership understands that it’s simply an issue of political brinkmanship. I wager that in a few months this tiff will be forgotten by both sides. I simply wish that this game didn’t have to be played this way.

Is it possible to own a house before 50?

A few months ago I received an epiphany; it was high time I stopped surviving pay cheque to pay cheque and started thinking about the future. Having come to that life-changing decision, I promptly wrote about it in these very pages (titled ‘Everyone can live the Rwandan dream’). I promised myself (and my readers) to open a savings account and prepare a mortgage plan. Well, I’ve done both so far but I’m starting to meet hurdles that I hadn’t envisaged when I wrote my column back in January. I didn’t know that, even if I did save a few millions, I couldn’t buy a modest house or apartment.  But honestly, I can’t.

Lets look at the prevailing housing market and see what some realtors have for us. Every day in the New Times classifieds section, PLUT Properties advertises it wares but I have to ask. Who exactly buys these properties? I mean, the cheapest property is an eighteen million franc house shell! The rest of the houses cost anywhere between 40 million and 90 million! Forget completed houses; just take a look at the prices for undeveloped land. Yes I understand that we are a small country with a large population. And yes I understand that the vagaries of supply and demand and I DO understand that property is a hot market, but I can’t fathom why an undeveloped property in Kicukiro should cost 140 MILLION FRANCS.

But that is the mature of the beast I guess. While I might disagree with the prices, I cannot disagree with the owners’ valuations of their property; it is all within their rights. But while the realtors, landowners and fabulously wealthy folks have a field day, what will become of me and my own dream to call a place my own? Shall I forever live in a rented apartment?

The issue of low-middle income housing has been a hot topic in the last couple of day, especially after the just concluded Property Expo. Everyone, and their momma, is running around looking for solutions to the problem but I must ask, “Why are we reinventing the wheel”? I cannot think of a single nation worldwide where affordable housing is provided by private businesses without state subsidies. Either the housing is build and managed by the government, local or national, or in the case of the United States, the government avails money to commercial banks to provide mortgage loans to their low and middle class customers.  While the government does this, private sector real estate developers aim at the upper middle and wealthy class.

I know that it is somewhat taboo to ask for direct government involvement in what should be a free market, but I cannot see another way out of this mess. We won’t be able to find a private investor who wants to build affordable housing. Why? Because it’s AFFORDABLE. A businessperson wants to maximise profit, not reduce it. I’m not asking the Local Government Ministry to enter the business of building apartments, but I AM asking the Social Security Fund, CSS Zigama, Rwanda Development bank and other pseudo-government bodies, which have money just floating about, (not forgetting other captains of industry such as Crystal Ventures, Rwanda Investment Group)  to get involved in this property market. Yes, Pension Plaza looks good, but, as a social security fund contributor, I would much prefer a block of apartments instead.

If nothing is done I, and the vast majority of Rwandans, will simply have to scrounge and skimp, until we too can afford to actually own a home. And looking at some of the prices out there, I will move into my new home when I’m on the wrong side of fifty. Woe is me.