Africa Policy and Futures Forum

Beyond Branding: What else does the “Singapore of Africa” mean for Rwanda and Africa?

By Musa Sherif on October 30, 2022

In 1994 Rwanda witnessed one of the worst atrocities in human history; The 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi. The scale of the violence was so extreme that The New Yorker’s Philip Gourevitch believed the entire country was decimated. “Decimation means the killing of every tenth person in a population, and in the spring and early summer of 1994 a program of massacres decimated the Republic of Rwanda”, he wrote.

Twenty-seven years later Rwanda has risen from a crisis-torn country to a model of transformative socio-economic governance in Africa. Stakeholders, technocrats, and party apparatchiks from nearly every part of the continent and the world regularly pay study visits to the country in search of Rwandan solutions to their domestic challenges. In the words of Faustine Ngila Rwanda has become “a classic example of how African states should sit confidently in the driving seat to determine their own destinies”.

This success, in part, is due to Rwanda’s selective borrowing from other countries around the world. In the years after 1994 Rwandan leaders, most of whom were inexperienced and semi-educated cadres of the Rwanda Patriotic Front, knew that the task of reconstruction was daunting and they could not do it on their own. As Urujeni Roseni, COO of the Rwanda Cooperation Initiative wrote, “although choosing to forge our own path through home-grown initiatives, we also realised that our traditions and values could help ground us but would not by themselves provide all the answers”. With this realisation, borrowing, adopting, and learning from other regions became their chosen strategy. Among those regions was Singapore.

From the Asian model Rwanda adopted ideas in areas such as environmental safety and greenery, city ordinance, national security, and ease of doing business, among others. As Tom Connolly of Foreign Brief put it, “the notable cleanliness in Kigali, strong police presence throughout the country, and little tolerance for dissent are similarities [Rwanda and Singapore] share. As a result of these similarities Rwanda has become dubbed as the “Singapore of Africa”.

Taken for branding, the “Singapore of Africa'' label is a great publicity stunt and a nice promotional tag. It pitches the ears and warms the hearts of global tourists and investors, most of whom either do not know about the tiny East African country or have not been there before. But beyond these positive tags lies a hardline of concealed condescension not often noticed. First, it presents Rwanda’s development as entirely the result of borrowing from Singapore. In this case not only is everything progressive about the country attributed to Singapore, but also everything visionary about it. Writing in 2021 Britain’s vanguard of anti-African rhetoric, The Economist made a classic of this thinking. Captioned “Three Places that dream of becoming Äfrica’s Singapore”, the outlet believed that Rwanda’s ongoing dream of becoming a financial hub in Africa is a desire to be like the Asian model'. Contrary to this thinking Rwanda's success and visioning are, in large part, the result of the intrinsic genius of its context and experience, tempered by both pre-colonial and contemporary challenges, than it is by anywhere else. Those include Imihigo, a performance contract signed between the president and his officials for accountable governance, Umuganda, a communal labour system in which citizens come together to build their community on every last saturday every month, and Gacaca, a retributive and restorative community justice practice in which the best, trusted, and highly regarded community members (often elders) come to dispense justice, among others. 

Second, the label makes Singapore the progenitor of development and makes development the exclusive genius of Singaporeans. Far from this, development is a human gift, and like all other human gifts it is conceivable in every part and to all humans of the world. As the South African thinker and leader Isaka Pixley Seme once remarked, “in all races, genius is like a spark, which, concealed in the bosom of a flint, bursts forth at the summoning stroke. It may arise anywhere and in any race”. Like Rwanda, Singapore is a sum total of selective borrowing. That is to say that Singapore, in its rise from third to first world status, not only learned but borrowed from other countries. Those countries included Switzerland from which it adopted its city ordinances and financial acumen, Britain and France from which its military capability was developed, and the USA where its students and future leaders got world-class education in the sciences, arts, etc. Yet, interestingly Singapore is never called the name of any of those countries as Rwanda is called its name.

Third and most dangerously, calling Rwanda the “Singapore of Africa” reinforces a historically racist belief about Africa which holds that Africa is incapable of development, and that to achieve one it has to be guided by other regions and or people of the world. This, again, is ignoble and misinforming. One needs not to be reminded that it was in Africa that human civilization first started and thrived, and where the first university and library of the world were built. The pyramids of Thebes, Sudan, Ethiopia, and Mali and the grandeur of their ruins are great inventions which the world presents nothing in comparison.

When one calls Rwanda the “Singapore of Africa”, one is not only promoting a brand that sells but also reinforcing, knowingly or unknowingly, a racist stereotype that Africa and Africans have long endured. To ignore this is to diminish the significance of the cultural context,, uniquely African, that has been the key to the country's successes, deny Rwanda the the respect, recognition, and accolades that it is due, miss out on the enormous potential Africa has to offer the world, and reinforce the primitive image Africa has long been subjected to. If anywhere, Rwanda is the Rwanda of Africa.

Musa AF Sherif is an alumnus of the African Leadership University, where he studied Global Challenges, and an upcoming Master candidate in Global Affairs at Tsinghua University. His interest trisects Africa’s political governance, economic development, and history.

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