In Conversation with Frederick Golooba-Mutebi, a researcher focusing on political economy

Frederick Golooba-Mutebi is a Ugandan and Rwandan researcher and consultant and has been an academic at universities in South Africa and Uganda. Right for Education spoke with him about the political economy of Rwanda, about the international community and economic development, and about the COVID-19 pandemic’s unlikely positive effect on Africa.

R:Ed: Could you tell us about yourself and your work?

I am a political scientist. I used to be an academic at the University of Witwatersrand and at Makerere University in Uganda. Then I left academia and became an independent researcher and consultant. A lot of my work is about political economy analysis across several sectors. Rwanda and Uganda are the two countries that I concentrate on.

R:Ed: You are currently based in Rwanda and have written about the political economy of development in the country. In what ways has the state-run a model of development been successful in Rwanda and in what ways, if any, has it fallen short?

Firstly, it has been successful in that it has helped tackle corruption. Many African countries struggle with corruption, whereby a lot of state resources, even aid resources, are diverted into things that have nothing to do with the well-being of the ordinary citizen. There is still corruption in Rwanda, but it’s kept at a minimum because punishment is swift and certain. It has also been successful because the government has not sat back and waited for foreign investors to come and kick start businesses. Through state owned companies, ruling party owned companies and military companies, the state has opened up sectors that had previously been inadequately exploited if at all. Rwanda had been seen as insecure and politically unstable, so foreign investors were reluctant come here after the genocide. This is changing, but even now there are sectors where they have not been willing to venture. So to that extent it has been successful, but Rwanda is still a poor country with many problems still to be solved.

R:Ed: Because of these successes, a lot of African countries seek to emulate the state-run model of economic development. What do you make of these attempts? Do you think that the ‘Rwandan model’ can be successfully transposed elsewhere across Sub-Saharan Africa?

I think there is a lot that other African countries can learn from Rwanda. For instance, countries can emulate the way Rwanda encouraged women to venture into areas where before there are very few women or none at all. They can also emulate Rwanda’s approach to fighting corruption. Rwanda’s inclusive politics can also be emulated; in their government there are many political parties that are working together in the interest of taking the country forward. However, much of Rwanda’s success is due to its history. We cannot expect everything that happens in Rwanda to be easily transferable to other countries. 

R:Ed: The UN Sustainable Development Goals include economic growth, but also goals such as Goal 16: peace, justice and strong institutions. Some have raised the concern that an electoral authoritarian state, such as Rwanda, cannot deliver on such more ‘wholistic’ goals, and can only deliver on goals that focus on the economy. What do you make of this argument?

I am originally Ugandan but I’ve lived in Rwanda for a long time. I’m familiar with all the surrounding countries, such as the DRC, Kenya, and Tanzania. Rwanda is not any more authoritarian than any of these countries. In fact, in all the 20 years I’ve lived in Rwanda, I have never seen a police officer strike a civilian. This is routine in countries like Uganda and Kenya and Tanzania. The other thing is that Paul Kagame wins very large percentages. However, in Rwanda the political system allows a variety of parties to be in government, so winning elections is not a matter of life and death. For instance, in the elections in 2017, 9 out of 11 political parties lined up behind President Kagame. If you look at the diaspora results, the smallest margin President Kagame won was in France, and that was 75%. Now, if somebody wants to claim that elections in Rwanda are rigged, then how do you explain Rwandans voting for President Kagame in large numbers at embassies across the world? In 2017 I voted at the embassy in Uganda, and a lot of Rwandans came to vote.  People stayed at the embassy and the votes were counted in front of everybody, and President Kagame’s vote margin in Uganda was in the high 90s. 

What is unique about politics in Rwanda is that politicians do not spend their time fighting. Instead, they build consensus around things that all the different political parties think are important. In Rwanda people talk less about politics than, say, in Uganda, but I think that this is more cultural than anything to do with the government. I think that the government here is interested in democratizing politics in this country, but this comes back to the issue of context. If multiple political parties competed for power and were able to say whatever, then given Rwanda’s history of division, genocide and discrimination, I do not think the country would remain stable. Rwandans in all their various political parties accept that they can only democratize gradually. But for now, it’s very dangerous to open up in a way where ‘anything goes’.

R:Ed: Context matters in relation to the international response to these regimes as well. What role have international actors, from individual states outside of Africa to the AU and the UN, had towards Rwanda’s and Uganda’s model of development?

The Rwandan state is an activist state and does not believe that the free market should be the final decider of what happens in the economic sphere. They let the market determine things where that is sensible, but they also intervene in areas where they think that markets do not serve the interests of the people. Some international actors want to introduce free market economics and speak out against the ruling party owning companies in Rwanda. However, foreign investors were not always keen on coming to Rwanda given its image in terms of genocide and political violence, so the government had to get involved. The government has been willing to experiment, and when something seems not to work, they are willing to re-examine that policy and try something new. I think that over time the international community has come to recognize this. Historically, Africa has been a recipient of policy initiatives, from structural adjustment to privatization. For me, the government of Rwanda is very refreshing in the sense that it can reject what it thinks will not work here and will think of its own ideas.

R:Ed: On a more personal note, 2020 has been a challenging year for many. Both in a personal and professional sense, who are what has inspired you or filled you with hope in the past couple of months?

At the beginning of the COVID pandemic, international media predicted that this was going to be a disaster for Africa given the poverty and our history with epidemics. However, we have been able to weather this storm at least so far without much external intervention or help. I think we Africans are sometimes too quick to look to the outside world for solutions to our problems. However, during the pandemic the countries that have traditionally been helping us were preoccupied by their own problems. I think what this experience has shown us is that we can do a lot more with and for ourselves. Even in the past, those who have helped us have not necessarily done us any favours by always coming in to help even where we might have been able to do things for ourselves.

Marwin Ramos


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