Kigali 2020: the politics of silence in the city of shock

The Rwandan government have ambitious yet deeply disruptive plans to rebuild Kigali as Africa's Singapore.  Despite plans to uproot vast swathes of the city to make way for 'virtual Kigali', the response by ordinary city-dwellers has been one of striking silence. 

Thomas Goodfellow
14 March 2013

Few governments in Africa have been as ambitious as Rwanda’s when it comes to thinking about their urban future. To anyone who knows the country, this intensity of ambition should come as no surprise. Rwanda’s ‘Vision 2020’ strategy paints a picture of a middle-income country in the year 2020: a regional economic powerhouse serving as an ICT, finance and logistics hub for the region. At the heart of this vision sits Kigali, the sparkling future-city linking Africa’s Indian Ocean coast to the tumultuous, war-torn interior of the continent with its thwarted potential and largely untapped markets.

Kigali 'Vision 2020'. Thomas Goodfellow.

Kigali master plan. Thomas Goodfellow.

The country’s own history of violence drives this vision. How better to banish the echoes of genocide, and to subvert the picture painted famously by Robert Kaplan of African cities as ‘the unsafest places in the world’, than by re-envisioning Kigali as a central African Singapore with immaculately-swept streets and startlingly little crime? The urban dimensions of Rwanda’s rebirth have, however, attracted surprisingly little attention so far.  

Kigali’s period as one of the world’s ‘unsafest’ places did not end with the 1994 genocide, though the city was virtually obliterated by it. Survivors who had concealed themselves in houses, attics and vegetation – sometimes for months – crept back out into Kigali’s streets to find it ‘empty – apart from the survivors and the bodies and the dogs’. Within weeks, however, hundreds of thousands of Tutsi exiles, who had been prevented from returning to their homeland for decades under previous regimes, poured into the city and moved into whichever houses they could find.

The new troubles really began when these returnees were joined in even larger numbers two years later by returning Hutu refugees, who had fled to the neighbouring Congo immediately after the genocide in fear of reprisals. Rwanda’s urban population grew at 18% annually around this time: a rate virtually unprecedented anywhere in the world since at least 1950. To put this in perspective, the UK’s cities are presently growing at around 0.7%, which is considerably higher than at any point in the last half century and at a time when the supposed ‘influx’ of immigrants dominates the political agenda.

Amid these soaring urban growth rates, genocide survivors who had lost entire families sometimes had little choice but to share their houses with genocidaires. Tiny plots of land were disputed by as many as four separate families; people were hounded out of their houses by having their tin roofs constantly pummelled with stones; revenge killings proliferated and informal security squads pacified the slums with bullets. The country was still in turmoil and Kigali, its streets lined with beggars and orphans, seemed to bring out all that is lamentable about the urban: the size, density and diversity that can make cities dynamic and innovative places here seemed to bring nothing but animosity and suffering.


Children collect water on the edge of an informal settlement, Kigali. Thomas Goodfellow.

Meanwhile a government led by former-exiles-turned-rebels, who by virtue of their ethnic identity had been prevented from living in Rwanda since Independence, were now ruling over a mythical homeland in which they had only recently first set foot. Kigali’s population had been almost entirely purged and then renewed though genocide, flight, international influx and refugee return; a city in a greater state of shock is difficult to imagine.

Securitizing the city from above and below

Against this harrowing backdrop, a new urban vision was conceived. To realise it, the incoming Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF)-led government believed they had first to pacify the city, find solutions for the land and housing scramble, and neutralise any subversive activity festering in city slums. Kigali was a litmus test for the success of the ‘new Rwanda: in the government’s words, things had ‘to go well in the city first’. The RPF had new allies, most notably in Britain and the United States, and aid began flowing rapidly through the city. At the same time, however, there was clearly a sense that much of the world was looking on sceptically, waiting for them to fail.

The strategy to make Kigali safe for RPF rule proceeded on several fronts. Without a formal police force yet established, the RPF brought its legendary military discipline – honed through years of guerrilla struggle in the inhospitable slopes of the Virunga volcanoes – to bear on the city through informal community-based policing. Security was not only important for its own sake: with security would come some degree of increased legitimacy. Indeed, this might be one of the few sources of legitimacy this government of ‘outsiders’ could hope for.

Meanwhile, Paul Kagame – former military intelligence officer, RPF kingpin and Rwanda’s President from 2000 – worked to inculcate what he terms new ‘mind-sets’, channelling a culture of upward accountability and ‘checking on your neighbour’ through Rwanda’s long-established social hierarchies. Structured social institutions had characterised the Kingdom of Rwanda in pre-colonial times; it was these that so impressed the German colonisers, and that facilitated the most ‘participatory’ genocide in world history a century later. Without these historically-rooted social structures on which to capitalise, is questionable whether the reins of power could have been grasped so fully by the RPF.

Reordering Kigali was a spatial matter too. As the new millennium began, the rebuilding of infrastructure, streamlining of administrative boundaries and launch of a controversial villagisation programme all reshaped Rwanda’s physical map, furthering the end of increased social legibility and institutional order.  Kigali’s trajectory evokes what Stephen Graham in this collection has termed the ‘obsessive securitisation of everyday life’. Unlike the cases discussed by Graham, however, the militarisation of Kigali largely involved intangible surveillance and the activation of informal institutions supporting discipline and order, rather than the hi-tech, barbed-wire military urbanism generated through entanglements between the USA and the Middle East.

Relatedly, the securitization of Kigali did not only come from these ‘top-down’ processes.  Many among the population also had reason to engage with an agenda of ‘secure urbanization’ and played their own part in urban transformation. A combination of conflict fatigue, trauma, guilt, paranoia, and in many quarters also hope and energy for a better future, were the government’s accomplices.  Informal workers formed structured associations that regularly undertook unpaid public works around the city, and competed to be the most effective group at managing waste or planting trees; the whole of society was mobilised. To be sure, the supervisory presence of the RPF was always palpable, yet the story is not simply one of overt coercion. The role of ‘quasi-voluntary compliance’ in the success of government efforts to transform Kigali is highlighted by the small number of formal police in the city – just 800 in 2006 for a population of around a million.

Dreams of Singapore

The government’s urban vision stretches far beyond simply having a green city with low rates of crime.  In 2007, they published the Kigali Conceptual Master Plan, designed by US firm Oz Architects and followed up with detailed area plans by both Oz and a Singaporean firm, Surbana. The plans are spectacular: slum areas are re-envisaged as ecological theme parks and commercial districts, while Rebero Hill in south Kigali is reimagined as a tourist haven featuring 900-room hotels.


Master plan launch. Thomas Goodfellow.

Representatives of Surbana claim that the Rwandan government makes decisions faster and implements them more efficiently than any of the other African governments they have worked with. Meanwhile, the Rwandans are also enthusiastically adopting a ‘Singapore model’ regarding the use of social security funds for housing development. These developments indicate an unusually serious engagement with urban change. Unlike most African governments, which have actively attempted to prevent urbanisation from happening, Rwanda’s policy is to actively facilitate and plan for it. One minister even stated that in the long term the country will probably be ‘100% urban’: an extraordinary ambition in view of the fact that over 80% of Rwandans are currently still rural farmers. It reflects, however, the realisation that dependence on agricultural livelihoods is unsustainable: Rwanda now has 10 million mostly tiny plots of land, with an average of 3 per household and constant fragmentation.

Not everyone is impressed with the Master Plan. ‘We cannot support that’, one donor representative commented, adding that planning is not a problem but needs to better incorporate the poor.  Similarly, a report from the UK Department for International Development – generally a staunch friend of the new Rwanda – cautioned that the plan was completely out of touch with the reality of land markets and incomes. Even people working on Rwanda’s urban agenda have expressed scepticism: ‘In my view the master plan is not a real design for the real city’, noted one consultant; ‘It is a virtual design for another city, not the actual Kigali that exists’.

If the Master Plan is just a fantasy, however, it is one vested with extraordinary power. While few observers expect the Singapore-style skyline depicted in the plans to materialise any time soon, the pre-implementation of the plan – in other words, expropriation of land and clearing of existing settlements – has proceeded apace. The government has dedicated enormous effort to attracting foreign investment, introducing bureaucratic changes that resulted in a move from no. 141 to no. 67 on the World Bank’s ‘Doing Business’ Index  in just one year from 2008-9.

The reality of doing business in the country is, however, complex and fraught with difficulties. Not only is Rwanda landlocked and crippled by sky-high costs for the import of materials, but the rigorous tax regime can be prohibitive and the process of acquiring that most scarce and political of assets in Rwanda – land – tortuously slow. Investor turnover is high; governing elites are increasingly concerned with the fact that so few set up and stay in the country long-term.

Blank spaces and stunted dialogue

In part as a consequence of these problems, much of the Master Plan remains in the realm of imagination. This in itself is not unusual: most developing countries have grandiose plans that have ended up merely festering on a City Council shelf. In Rwanda, a key difference is that implementation of the early stages has been so swift and concerted. This means that slum clearances and expropriations have left enormous scars of turned earth, especially visible given Kigali’s hilly terrain, across the urban landscape. In some cases these have already been laced with roads, water pipes and even fibre-optic cables. It is as if the government viewed the buildings themselves, and the enterprises they would presumably house, as the icing on the cake. In fact, of course, without these there is no cake at all.  So glaring are these blank spaces in the heart of the city that by 2012 the government had put the brakes on plans to expropriate new areas for further ambitious urban projects.


Expropriated land in Kigali. Thomas Goodfellow.

Equally striking is the relative lack of protest at this uprooting of swathes of the ‘actual Kigali that exists’ to make way for the ‘virtual Kigali’ of the future. In contrast to the land expropriations in China discussed elsewhere in this collection, violent protests and media attention have not been much in evidence.  The comparison is an interesting one, not least given that both states are renowned for constraints on media freedom and political debate. Why have Kigali-dwellers submitted to this wrenching change to their city with so little overt resistance?

This takes us full circle back to the question of conflict and ‘shock’ with which this article began. This is not simply to say that the genocide stunned an entire population into submission. For one thing, the roots of social conformity stretch back further than that; as noted previously, hierarchy and social control have a long history in Rwanda, and observers have long commented on the ‘culture of obedience’ in the country. Yet to ascribe such trends to ‘culture’ is both obfuscating and deterministic, diminishing the agency of individuals while also depoliticising the dynamics at play.

More realistic is to understand the response of Rwandans to the government’s ambitious but deeply disruptive urban vision in terms of a more complex and nuanced ‘politics of silence’. This implies not simply a cultural propensity but the idea that ordinary city-dwellers understand the futility of protest in contemporary Rwanda, perceiving the value of not protesting both for their own wellbeing and the stability of their still-fragile nation, and play their part in reproducing a political equilibrium. Historical power dynamics certainly play a role, but they are reinterpreted and reproduced by contemporary Rwandans, whose motivations likely combine some hope and trust in the government’s development agenda with aversion to conflict and fear of ending up on the wrong side of the law.

Such ‘silence’ is not, however, particularly conducive to effective and inclusive urban development because it limits dialogue over the complex trade-offs and possible negative consequences of urban transformation. Most development takes place through processes of ‘dissensus’ rather than consensus, and the challenge is to find ways to make processes of contestation non-violent, rather than simply assuming that conflict will evaporate through economic development. The illusion of a conflict-free city, so appealing after the bloodbaths of the past, surely cannot last forever. Rwanda has yet to build adequate channels for political contestation of this kind, and the prevailing situation may be neither sustainable nor developmental in the longer term.

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