Billboards around Rwanda promote the government's zero tolerance of corruption.
c Anti-corruption signs like this are common throughout sub-Saharan Africa, yet very few countries have been successful in reducing corruption. [Adam Jones]

Rwanda: Corruption will not be tolerated

Rwanda has been the most successful country in East Africa in stamping out the graft culture, but is it at the cost of freedom?

The Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index for 2012, which ranks countries and territories based on the perceived levels of corruption in their public sector, places Rwanda at 50th out of 176 countries. This compares favourably with its fellow East African Community (EAC) members Uganda (130th), Kenya (139th), Burundi (165th) and Tanzania (102nd).

So how has Rwanda been able to curb corruption when so many of its neighbours have failed to do so? Only Botswana and Cape Verde Islands in Sub-Saharan Africa have enjoyed more success in tackling corruption and Rwanda sits above Italy and China in the rankings. But what have been the key ingredients driving Rwanda’s success?

Tough Talk and Measures
Key to Rwanda’s success in tackling corruption has been a will to address the issue from those at the very top of the government. Rwanda’s President, Paul Kagame, has been a strong advocate for a zero tolerance approach to corruption, and he has backed up his rhetoric with affirmative action when called upon to do so.

Kagame continues to advocate for tougher prison sentences arguing that the current punishment allows for individuals to turn embezzlement into a profession, sacrificing a short term prison sentence for what he terms a ‘luxurious tomorrow’. He remains adamant that ‘people who embezzle public funds must pay back what they have eaten’.

The government has reflected these views, and put in place a number of specific measures and made a number of public pledges aimed at tackling corruption. Most notably Rwanda has ratified the United Nations Convention against Corruption (UNCAC) and the African Union Convention on Preventing and Combating Corruption (AUCPCC).

At the National Level, the creation of an Ombudsman Office in 2004, which monitors the transparency and compliance of government sectors, has been a key enforcement tool. It has taken stern action against a number of key political figures. In 2009, the Finance Director at the Office of the President was suspended from office pending investigation of corruption allegations. He was subsequently imprisoned for four years and ordered to pay a fine in excess of million.

This is just one of a number of examples of high-level public officials reprimanded for corrupt activities. Other African countries have put similar mechanisms in place but they lack the power to act on what they find, or to investigate those associated with the incumbent regime. In Uganda, for example, the scandal that has rocked the Office of the Prime Minister has not yet seen any individuals held accountable for the vast embezzling of donor funds despite its very public nature.

The Business and Aid Perspective
The Rwandese government also maintains the belief, and rightly so, that a corrupt free environment is good for attracting aid and business. Doing business in Rwanda is much easier than many other African countries. It is currently ranked 52nd in the World Bank’s ease of doing business index, making it the third easiest place to do business in Africa.

Red tape has been cut to a minimum, an example being the process of starting and registering a business. In Rwanda it costs around $20 and takes on average three days compared to the Sub-Saharan average of 34 days at over fifteen times the cost. The government led clamp down on corruption can be viewed in this economic framework as a way of creating an attractive environment for investment and investors.

One million Rwandans have been lifted out of poverty in the last five years and, according to the International Monetary Fund, GDP growth in 2011 was a remarkably high 8.6%. Its projection for 2013 is 7.5%, which is positive when viewed in the current global economic context. Obviously, this is not solely because of Rwanda’s strong support of anti-corruption measures, but it certainly has been a factor in increasing business and economic growth.

Paul Kagame wants to implement tougher anti-corruption laws [World Economic Forum]

Paul Kagame wants to implement tougher anti-corruption laws [World Economic Forum]

Lower levels of corruption create a positive environment for aid to come into the country, as donors know that the money allocated will be spent to develop infrastructure and improve the lives of its inhabitants. However, it is often suggested that the real reason for the large sums pumped into Rwanda by Western governments is to make up for the moral guilt of not having acted during the genocide of 1994.

Only in the last couple of years has the support begun to wane as the Kagame regime has come under greater scrutiny for its human rights record and support of rebel groups in Eastern Congo. In Rwanda, donors are not worried about funds being embezzled as in Uganda, they are more concerned about the type of regime they are aiding. What is undeniable is that since 1994 Rwanda has used its aid effectively.  In conjunction with its business models it has seen strong economic growth which cannot solely be ascribed to, but has been helped by, a zero tolerance approach towards corruption.

Corruption as a Policy?
This poses an interesting theoretical debate. Is a strong-willed state with elements of authoritative control better equipped to tackle corruption than a truly democratic state that promotes and practices wide ranging transparency and access to accountability?

Rwanda falls more into the former category and has been able to tackle corruption to the extent that it is not a feature of everyday life like in many other parts of the continent. However, it seems an exception to the rule rather than the norm. The majority of states at the top of the Transparency Index are those which allow for the greatest democratic freedoms (Denmark, Finland and New Zealand) and those at the bottom are nations where state control is concentrated in the hands of very few (North Korea, Afghanistan and Sudan).

Rwanda’s ability to tackle corruption is helped by the level of state control and a political will to act, that appears to come from the very top. The economic benefits are apparent, but there is also a potentially more Machiavellian reason for the staunch commitment to ridding society of corruption. It allows for greater political control.

The activities it engages in, exploiting instability in Eastern Congo through its support of the M23 rebels, suggests that the Rwandan state has little moral objection to corruption. In this regard its zero tolerance approach to corruption can be viewed as a political strategy which offers the dual benefit of societal development and a continued level of political control. Rwanda makes no public statements to suggest that fellow EAC members would benefit from tackling corruption or encouraging them to adopt measures that would increase public sector accountability. It does this because Kagame recognises the advantageous position Rwanda holds in being able to attract business and, to an extent, aid compared with its more corrupt neighbours and does not wish to relinquish this position of advantage.

In this light, perhaps Rwanda’s zero tolerance approach to corruption has nothing to do with the moral question of whether it is right or wrong but it simply works as a political strategy to ensure greater state control of politics and resources. It would seem unlikely that any significant shift away from this approach to corruption will be made in the near future and nor should it be encouraged as it would impact detrimentally on the ‘ordinary’ Rwandan who has benefited, economically and socially, from the corrupt free environment.

Jamie Hitchen

Jamie graduated with a Masters in African Politics from the School of Oriental and African Studies in 2011. He has since held short term roles at Electoral Reform International Services, The Commonwealth Secretariat, Human Rights Centre Uganda and Development Education. He currently lives and works in Kampala, Uganda and is interested in issues of elections, governance and peace-building in the region.

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