Germany’s non-judgmental relationship with Rwanda | Africa | DW | 08.04.2014
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Germany’s non-judgmental relationship with Rwanda

Germany and Rwanda enjoy good ties, notwithstanding criticism of the Kigali government's understanding of democracy. Progress in the economy and education sectors are considered to outweigh the regime's shortcomings.

Rwanda's Minister of State for Primary and Secondary Education Mathias Harebamungu has only good words for Germany. Relations are excellent and characterized by mutual respect, he says. Particularly in the education sector, his country benefits from Germany's long experience. "We want to become a knowledge-based society. In this, we receive support from Germany," Harebamungu told DW. Although Rwanda has made enormous progress in the 20 years since the genocide of April 1994 and the economy is now 60 percent self-reliant, help from abroad is still necessary, he added. The Federal Republic of Germany is an important partner, occupying fifth position in the list of donor countries.

Pupils at an elementary school supported by the German state of Rhineland-Palatinate

These pupils benefit from support from Rhineland-Palatinate in Germany

Some of the German support comes from the federal state of Rhineland-Palatinate whose partnership with Rwanda goes back more than 30 years. For Richard Auernheimer, president of the partnership association "Verein Partnerschaft Rheinland-Pfalz Ruanda", this is a special form of cooperation, largely based on personal ties. "Many citizens of Rhineland-Palatinate run projects independently and do not always rely on us to coordinate them," Auernheimer told DW. A large part of the financial aid comes from state and local community coffers, while donations make up 30 percent. Over the years, the state has financed the construction of a large number of schools, enabling more than 360,000 Rwandan children to benefit from an education.

Rwanda as a beacon

Internationally, Rwanda is a favorite target country for development cooperation projects. The US and Canada have close ties to the country. France, Belgium, Great Britain and China are also important partners. Gerd Hankel from the Hamburg Institute for Social Research has this explanation, "Rwanda is seen as a beacon in development cooperation, as a country in which financial aid is put to good use." It is a beacon that shines all the more brightly against the bleak background in Kenya, Uganda, Burundi and Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), he says.

That is not to say there are no shadows over Rwanda's international relations. There is, for example, the ongoing conflict in eastern DRC. After United Nations' experts presented evidence of Rwandan support for rebels in Congo in 2012, many countries suspended their financial aid. Germany was among them.

Trucks carrying M23 rebels in DRC

A UN panel claimed Rwanda supported M23 rebels in DRC

Just a few months later it was Germany that first lifted the sanctions. According to the Ministry for Economic Development and Cooperation, this was because of the positive role played by Rwanda in regional negotiations in the Congolese peace process. However Germany's development minister at the time, Dirk Niebel, took steps to ensure that from then on German financial aid would be channeled directly to individual projects and no longer into the Rwandan budget.

Democratic shortcomings

For researcher Gerd Hankel this was the wrong decision."It demonstrates a very broad, but partly inaccurate understanding of Rwandan politics," he said. Under Nazi rule between 1933 and 1945, Germany was also guilty of mass murder and, says Hankel, now feels it bears a moral responsibility to show understanding for the government of President Paul Kagame, the man who put an end to the genocide in Rwanda. "It is right to feel understanding but there should be clear lines drawn and one should not allow oneself to be blackmailed," Hankel said.

Today, as the German financial aid flows again, the points of criticism have not been addressed, Hankel told DW. For example, in addition to Rwanda's violation of international law, the Kagame government still does not tolerate any real political opposition. In the parliamentary elections of September 2013, a number of groups critical of the government failed to clear the bureaucratic hurdles to genuine participation that had been put in their way. In January 2013 the murder of Kagame's former security chief Patrick Karegeya in a hotel room in Johannesburg caused an uproar. A number of Rwandan diplomats were suspected of involvement in his death and South Africa expelled them. Germany's response to such events is to step up the political dialogue. A spokesperson at the German foreign ministry told DW the good bilateral relationship made it possible for Germany to express criticism in sensitive areas.

Should the economy take priority?

While Germany's foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier takes the line that economic development and democracy cannot be separated, Rwanda's President Kagame gives priority to the economy alone. For him, democratic development takes second place. This is understandable, says Richard Auernheimer from Rheinland-Palatinate. "Europe should be encouraged to follow this line of thinking because otherwise many developments would not be possible."

Dr. Gerd Hankel

Gerd Hankel says education will help Rwandans take a more critical view of their country

Rwanda must be allowed to plot its own course to enable it to move forward. "Kagame has succeeded in bringing his country to a point that no one would have thought possible," said Aurernheimer. He has made it possible for many Rwandans to receive an education, and now an economy-based future can take shape.

Rwandan Education Minister Harebamungu does not reject all criticism. This can also be constructive, he says, giving the example of family members sitting down together to discuss points on which they differ. "But it is not good to base criticism on information that does not come from reliable sources." It is important to travel to Rwanda for face to face talks with officials and ordinary Rwandans. "This is the only way to get a picture of the reality in Rwanda," Harebamungu said. Gerd Hankel agrees that the focus on education in development work is important. " If we invest in education, in teaching people to see things differently and be willing to discuss matters, that will lead to Rwandans asking more questions of their politicians," he said.

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