Impressions of Kigali: This city works

The first and only time I had been in Kigali before was in 2009 and I saw only a little of it. I remember that I was unable to complete my tour of the holocaust memorial for the emotion that overtook me; successive rooms of shelves stacked with hacked and broken skulls, the skulls getting smaller as you progressed through the dark display. My tour didn’t last long and I left there quickly, only to be shown the bridge from which mothers were forced to throw their children into the river far below. The place left an impression on me.

This time it was different…

The last 50 kilometres of Ugandan road, to the border with Rwanda, is hardly a road at all. The potholes are huge and our vehicle jolts and shudders with the unremitting impact of those potholes we fail to avoid. My back starts to hurt and I’m very irritable by time we reach Katuna, a small border town on the verge of Rwanda.

It takes standing in a queue for half an hour to exit Uganda. Then, after a short walk to the Rwandan side, there’s no one at all to delay us. The stamp on my South African passport is simply routine and the customs declaration for our car is handled efficiently. Our journey continues. The machine gun-toting policeman checks our passports, swings the boom and politely ushers us into Rwanda. Immediately we change to drive on the right hand side.

Suddenly the road is impeccable, although it is still being cut out of the Virunga mountainside. It is wide, newly surfaced, perfectly cambered, and winds easily down into the nation’s capital, Kigali.

Two hours later, in Kigali, I am first struck by the fact that the city is spotless and inhabited only by well-dressed people going about their business. Shoppers are carrying big brown paper packets and I am told that no plastic packets are allowed. It’s midday and there’s no sign of a traffic jam anywhere. The dual-lane bypass sweeps through the city, out and on.

Unlike Kampala, where simply everywhere is a trading zone, Kigali is highly ordered, zoning regulations clearly in force. There’s no one selling cooked chicken pieces on dusty sidewalks. In fact, there are no dusty sidewalks; on the sides there’s paving, and at the centre of the dual carriageways are well trimmed lawns and palm trees.

While Kampala might have the highest per capita number of motorbike taxis in Africa, Kigali must come a close second. But again, Kigali is different. Whereas riding a motorbike taxi (‘boda-boda’) in the vehicular mayhem of Kampala poses threats to life and limb (especially without a helmet), Kigali riders are sedate, controlled, everyone wearing protective headgear, colour-coded according to the mobile service provider that sponsored it; green for MTN and blue for Tigo.

A street in Kigali. (Pic: AFP)
A street in Kigali. (Pic: AFP)

Both Kampala and Kigali are cities built on hills and both cities are widely spread out. Large sections of Kigali’s hilly suburban areas are beautiful, the older parts very reminiscent of the older parts of suburban Cape Town; narrow, meandering roads wind around the hills and you even find the occasional cobbled street.

During my week-long stay, the Rwandans I meet speak their own language (Kinyarwanda) and although almost everyone is fluent in French, the language is seldom used despite the fact that the locals I meet have names like Jean-Baptiste, Philippe and Patrice among them.

Kinyarwanda sounds a bit like a Bantu language mixed with Russian. It is not an easy language at all, but that the colloquial version is infused with variations on many Swahili words makes it a little easier for me to understand. Some of it I get, at least. And many Rwandans are fluent in Swahili too.

“English is problem,” I am repeatedly told.

On Saturday night I am taken out to see the Kigali night-life. It is sedate by comparison to Nairobi and Kampala too. People are well dressed and well behaved and I hear smatterings of French being spoken around me. People drink cognac and expensive whiskies more than beer. Around midnight the place starts to empty and by 1am we are heading home.

Patrice, my host, is a connoisseur of fine spirit liquors and we stop at Kigali’s only 24-hour liquor store. Instead of the cheap liquor one might expect to find in a store that services the needs of the all-night drinker, this one stocks mainly Hennessy, Johnny Walker Black Label, Chivas Regal and Jack Daniels.

“This place will finish me,” Patrice says as he hands over more than $100 for a bottle of Johnny Walker.

That there is a lot of money in Kigali is obvious from this store alone.

My visit coincides with Rwanda marking 20 years since the genocide that happened in the country.

Rwandans gather under a banner at the Amahoro stadium in Kigali on April 7 2014, during a ceremony marking the 20th anniversary of Rwanda's genocide. (Pic: AFP)
Rwandans gather under a banner at the Amahoro stadium in Kigali on April 7 2014 during a ceremony marking the 20th anniversary of Rwanda’s genocide. (Pic: AFP)

‘Kwibuka’ is to remember. Remember, Unite, Renew. The Rwandese are not about to forget what happened in 1994. Everywhere around Kigali are large corporate banners with the logo and in the week that I’m there, spending time among Rwandans, I don’t hear the words ‘Hutu’ or ‘Tutsi’ even once. The genocide is remembered but is obviously not up for discussion any longer.

I fly from Kigali International Airport on a RwandAir flight direct to Nairobi. My departure is handled efficiently and we take off only a few minutes late because passengers connecting from Burundi arrive late. The flight takes just over an hour as the pilot makes up for lost time. We land exactly at the expected time of arrival.

Things change immediately. At Jomo Kenyatta International Airport it takes nearly an hour to clear Immigration and get my luggage. Nairobi’s perfunctory traffic jam starts at the airport parking area where the pay station has no change. The boom rises as we are told to proceed to the next pay station, outside the parking area. Here the ticketing machine is not working and we have to wait for a half hour for the jam to build enough for a supervisor to let us all go, scot-free.

I am left with the impression that Africa can indeed work as the west might expect. From what I saw, Kigali has achieved it. For now, we’ll leave the contentious subject of there being a dictatorship in Rwanda, even if somewhat benevolent. We’ll leave the subject of restrictions on mobility imposed on the local population. We’ll leave the fact that you can’t ride a bicycle into the city, or be void of shoes when you walk there. And, we’ll leave the contention that Paul Kagame is “eating” as much as any other despot in Africa. So too will we leave the contention that Kigali is packed with Kagame’s spies, tracking down any likely suspect.

Africa can work, even if its operation is conditional and enforced.

Brian Rath was born and raised in Cape Town. He now lives and writes in Kenya, and recently had a novel published.

Sugar factory in CAR reopens amid strife

A sugar refinery – the war-torn Central African Republic’s biggest factory – is back in business after soldiers recaptured it from former rebels who occupied it for more than a year.

In a rare boost to the impoverished nation’s battered economy, the plant’s 150 employees are back on the job in Ngakobo in the east of the former French colony – with African peacekeepers providing security.

They had fled to the capital Bangui amid sectarian violence sparked by a March 2013 coup by the mainly Muslim Seleka movement.

“We had no more work, no more money. We were bored, so we are happy to be back,” said 30-year-old Solange Ngortene, a secretary at the factory.

Under a blazing sun, workers are busy cutting sugar cane on four hectares of rolling green fields. They would go on to cut 200 tonnes of raw cane that day, enough to produce 20 tonnes of sugar worth some $27 000.

Workers collect sugar cane at the largest sugar factory in the Central African Republic in Ngakobo, 450km east of the capital Bangui. (Pic: AFP)
Workers collect sugar cane at the largest factory in the Central African Republic, in Ngakobo, 450km east of the capital Bangui. (Pic: AFP)

“I was unemployed for more than a year. I was only getting between 10 and 30 percent of my gross salary. That wasn’t easy with a family to provide for,” Ngortene told AFP.

Like many employees of factory operator Sucaf, Ngortene fled with her family to Bangui when the Seleka seized swathes of the landlocked African state in December 2012.

Seleka rebels
The Seleka, a predominantly Muslim rebel militia, looted the refinery, which normally produces 11 000 tonnes of sugar a year, and then commandeered it as their eastern base.

Their coup three months later plunged the country into chaos, eventually displacing a quarter of the 4.6-million population.

After seizing power, some of the rebels went rogue and embarked on a campaign of killing, raping and looting.

The abuses prompted members of the Christian majority to form vigilante groups called “anti-balaka,” or anti-machete in the local language, unleashing a wave of brutal tit-for-tat killings.

Fifteen months on, Seleka has been chased from power following intervention by French and African troops, leaving the economy of the mineral-rich nation – already on its knees following decades of neglect and corruption – in ruins.

While the former rebels still control the area surrounding the refinery, the plant itself was recaptured in an operation involving 30 African peacekeepers in a force known as MISCA and 60 hired private guards. By the end of April, the factory was ready to reopen.

“The factory is going well,” says Sylvestre Serelgue, wearing blue overalls outside the mechanical workshop he helps to operate. “Our brothers from MISCA are providing security. We feel at ease in the factory.”

The problem, he says, is the local Fulani tribesmen, nomadic herders who are armed and directed by Seleka.

“The Fulani really bother us. They attack the staff in their neighbourhoods. There are 15 or 20 of them and they take our money,” Serelgue says.

Gabonese MISCA officers explain that the some 15 Seleka rebels controlling Ngakobo have recruited the Fulani to rob area residents.

“Many employees who sought refuge in Bangui after fleeing the Seleka came back here when it became even more dangerous” in the capital, says Akroma Ehvitchi, the factory’s Ivorian site manager.

“They returned alone, without their families, as there’s no transport and there are still security problems.”

Employees send money back to their families in Bangui aboard the company plane, “but the salary isn’t enough,” according to Prosper, a 42-year-old day labourer. He earns 1 100 CAR francs ($2.20) a day – barely enough to buy a kilo of sugar.

“It’s not much,” acknowledges Sucaf boss Thomas Reynaud. “But in some families you have five or six people who work here.

“The goal is to restart production to save the site,” says the young Frenchman, who was hosting a delegation of diplomats and military officials from Bangui.

Ehvitchi, leaving the factory aboard a company pickup truck, preferred to make light of CAR’s plight of widespread violence and abject poverty.

“In such a situation if you understand what’s happening it means it has not been well explained to you,” Ehvitchi says with a laugh.

Stephane Jourdain for AFP

Tough road ahead for Malawi’s Mutharika

(Pic: AFP)
(Pic: AFP)

After days of confusion, court injunctions, accusations of vote rigging and a series of irregularities with the voting process, Malawi finally has a new president. Peter Mutharika, an academic and a younger brother to Bingu wa Mutharika, Malawi’s former president who died in office in 2012, was sworn in on Saturday and inaugurated on Monday, June 2. He is Malawi’s fifth president.

Mutharika’s victory, with only 36% of the national vote, does not represent a total change in local politics; it is more of a continuation of his brother’s presidency, which was punctuated by Joyce Banda’s two-year rule. Bingu wa Mutharika died while lining up his young brother to succeed him. Peter’s victory has accomplished that mission, which seemed improbable when a heart attack cut short Bingu’s life on the morning of April 5 2012.

Joyce Banda, then state vice president, replaced the late Mutharika, in line with a constitutional provision.

On May 20 this year, Banda led her own party into an election for the first time. She lost badly, finishing a distant third with 20.2%, after Mutharika’s 36% and Lazarus Chakwera’s 27.8%. It is the first time in Malawi that a sitting president has lost an election since the country held its first democratic election in 1994.

Mutharika’s much-anticipated inaugural speech on Monday did not live up to most Malawians’ expectations. It lacked the weight and clarity of the speech his brother delivered 10 years ago. But then it touched on almost every sector of the economy, from tomato vendors to foreign policy. Perhaps this underlines the fact that Peter Mutharika is more of an academic than a politician, unlike his brother. In fact, it’s unlikely that Peter Mutharika would be in politics today had his brother not ruled Malawi first.

Most parts of his speech were a carbon copy of his party’s manifesto. The promise of a small cabinet of no more than 20 ministers, for instance. This is a big deal in Malawi, a country that is used to having up to 40 cabinet ministers, including their deputies.

Mutharika made it a point to clarify that he has no axe to grind with his rivals. Singling out his arch-rival Joyce Banda, Mutharika expressed his disappointment at her absence at the inauguration ceremony even though she had been invited

The rivalry between Mutharika and Banda dates back to the time when Banda deputised Bingu. Banda is on record saying that Bingu promised that she would succeed him, but this changed when Peter Mutharika came into the picture. Bingu opted for his young brother as a successor. The row led to Banda’s expulsion from Mutharika’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). Banda and few colleagues then formed their own political group, eventually registering it as the People’s Party (PP). Bingu’s death meant that Banda would form a government, taking her party with her and therefore relegating DPP to opposition benches.

Peter Mutharika and few DPP top officials tried in vain to prevent Banda from succeeding  Bingu. Their attempt to stop her from ascending to the presidency later resulted in Peter Mutharika and his colleagues being charged with treason – charges that still stand. With the recent turn of events, however, the treason charges against Mutharika are unlikely to stick as sitting presidents in Malawi have immunity from prosecution.

In fact local analysts believe the tables will be turned, and it will be Joyce Banda facing prosecution now, most likely on corruption charges. Many unresolved high-profile corruption cases happened on her watch, most notably the colossal looting of over $100 million from government coffers by senior civil servant and politicians, known as “Cashgate”. The fact that Mutharika says he wants to bury the past and move on may be assuring but history shows that every former president in Malawi has faced a court case of some kind. Joyce Banda will be aware of this.

Foreign policy
The other key issue to emerge from Mutharika’s inaugural speech was foreign policy. It’s clear that the new president is not sure of western donor support. He said foreign policy would be based on “what is best for Malawi”, adding that Malawi would continue with traditional relationships with donor countries and organisations “but we are now looking for new friends in the emerging economies such as Brazil, China, India, South Africa and Russia”.

It is a loaded and multifaceted statement but it shows that Mutharika is accurately aware that he has his work cut out insofar as winning confidence of traditional donors is concerned. To start with, at the time of Bingu’s death, most donor countries had deserted Malawi due to Bingu’s undiplomatic tendencies, poor governance and his increasingly autocratic behaviour. Crucially, Peter Mutharika was foreign affairs minister at the time; he must have been involved in diplomatic negotiations one way or another. It is most likely that most donors have grown cold feet at Peter Mutharika’s victory. Mutharika’s emphasis on looking for “new friends” suggests that he is worried about it.

Furthermore, Mutharika has inherited a government that has lost 40% of annual budget support which comes from donors. Donors decided to withhold this support late last year in response to the “Cashgate” revelations. Convincing donors to release the cash will be Mutharika’s first task. The president needs no reminding of how much Malawi suffered economically under his brother’s rule when donors froze budgetary support. Bingu died with Malawi’s economy on the verge of collapse – Peter Mutharika cannot afford to start his presidency on this note.

Irrespective of his victory, Mutharika still needs to win the confidence of a lot of Malawians. Sixty-four percent of Malawians voted against him. He won the election via the country’s shambolic first-past-the-post voting system, which does not require a re-run even if the leading candidate fails to get more than 50% of the vote. Bingu Mutharika initially came to power in 2004 with only 35% of the national vote. However, his excellent performance in his first term won him a second term with a landslide of 63%. Peter will be looking to achieve the same, albeit under different circumstances.

Jimmy Kainja is an academic, lecturing at Chancellor College, University of Malawi. Hes also a current affairs and political analyst and blogger. He is interested in news media, communications and political & social changes, particularly in Malawi. He blogs at Follow him on Twitter: @jkainja 

Niger’s first slavery conviction: Man jailed for 4 years

A man has been sentenced to four years in jail in Niger’s first conviction for slavery.

Elhadji Djadi Raazikou (63) was convicted of having a “fifth wife” – a practice in which girls, usually of slave descent, are treated as property because local Islamic law permits only four wives.

Known as wahaya in the local Tamasheq language, they are seen as a sign of prestige among wealthy buyers in Niger and northern Nigeria’s Hausa ethnicity. No marriage takes place, depriving the woman of legal rights, and men have several wahaya.

“They are treated solely as property and face a lifetime of regular rape, physical and psychological abuse and forced labour,” said Jakub Sobik of the international pressure group Anti-Slavery International.

Touareg girls, claimed to be slaves, attend a ceremony where their chief, who had promised to release 7 000 slaves, denied slavery exists. Picture taken March 5 2005. (Reuters)
Touareg girls, claimed to be slaves, attend a ceremony where their chief, who had promised to release 7 000 slaves, denied slavery exists. Picture taken March 5 2005. (Reuters)

Raazikou allegedly bought the girl for 200 000 CFA francs (£248) and put her to work as a domestic drudge for one of his four other wives. He had been detained in the town of Birnin Konni since the local anti-slavery organisation Timidria alerted authorities in 2010.

“We hope this latest success will be a catalyst for others to start coming forward,” said Abankawel Illitine, a Timidria board member.

It is the first successful such prosecution since a Nigerian woman challenged her former master in the Court of Justice of the West African regional body Ecowas six years ago.

The girls are often born into slavery in a rigid caste system where “noble-borns”, usually lighter-skinned Moors, indirectly or directly own darker-skinned Moors or black Africans. The girls, almost always sold before they turn 15 and frequently as young as nine, sometimes change hands several times.

Up to 130 000 people are trapped in modern slavery in Niger, with women and children bearing the brunt. Some wahaya are forced to wear a heavy brass ankle ring. In neighbouring Mauritania, those old enough to cover their hair are often forced to leave their arms bare – against rural tradition – to enable them to carry heavy burdens.

Much of the abuse comes from the other wives, whose position depends on being able to remain a spouse. “A wahaya can regain their freedom if their first-born is a boy, because the husband will then either divorce another of his wives or he must liberate the mother,” Illitine said. In Raazikou’s case, he tried to divorce one of his other four wives to marry a fifth, the court heard.

Slavery has existed across the Sahel and Sahara since Arabic-speaking Moors raided African villages and launched the trans-Saharan slave trade centuries ago. Some proponents justify its continuation through Quranic texts that permitted the enslavement of women captured in jihad (holy war), although it is practised even in countries that never experience jihad.

Talak inherited her slave status from her parents, who were captured in a raid by Tuaregs against their village. “My work load was awful, unimaginable … [My master] considered me to have no soul. He would use me for pleasure while hate burned in my heart,” she told rights activists after running away.

Mauritania was the world’s last country to abolish slavery, in 1981, but campaigners say it is difficult to overturn a deeply engrained custom among rural communities across the several Saharan nations.

“Wahaya goes on with the consent of traditional chiefs, who are in fact the ones who own the most women,” said a local chief in the northern Nigerian state of Sokoto, which borders Niger.

The chief, who asked not to be named, said nomadic Tuaregs frequently crossed the Sahara to reach the former Islamic caliphate, where the custom of buying girls was well established. “There are villages where 80% of girls came to Nigeria so young they don’t know anything about where they come from, or anything about their birth families,” he said.