In recent years Rwanda has been bolstering its international reputation through their impressive green credentials. Rwanda is ahead of the curve on popular green policies; in 2008 Rwanda banned all plastic bags at a time when other countries were only mulling a potential tax. Positioning itself as a sustainable middle-income economy, Rwanda aims to make Kigali, the nation’s capital, Africa’s first green city and the wider country a model green economy through a multi-billion-dollar project .
In relation to transport, the Green City Kigali Project permits modest levels of car use freeing up land for more housing combined with an urban layout that promotes walking . This leads on to the most recent environmentally friendly policy proposal and happens to be centred around sustainable transport. The Rwandan government is proposing an exponential rise in taxes on personal use of fossil fuel driven cars to deter public use. The proposal follows the introduction of reduced tariffs on electric vehicles in April 2021, which aim to provide an incentive to ditch fossil fuel cars and simultaneously save an estimated $20 billion on fuel imports. At the same time enforcement of designated bus lanes will be strengthened to encourage public transport use followed by a gradual 10-year electrification of Kigali’s bus network.
This new policy is not without cause: the government estimates transport accounts for roughly 40% of emissions in Rwanda’s urban areas. Despite these claims, according to a 2018 report on sustainable mobility in their cities, Rwanda has some of the lowest Co2 emissions in the world. Co2 emissions per capita stand at 0.49 tons, significantly lower than the East African average of 2.50 tons. Certainly, although Rwandan Co2 emissions per capita remains small, emissions from transport grew 39% between 2002 and 2012 .
Response to the proposed tax hike has been met with criticism, chiefly among climate change experts. Egide Kalisa, a climate change researcher from the University of Toronto, argues that Rwanda is introducing such measures too early when the infrastructure for facilities such as charging stations is not in place. Instead, measures such as improving infrastructure by encouraging active transport such as walking and cycling may, according to Kalisa, have a greater impact. Moreover, maintaining and upgrading existing vehicles to reduce emissions would ‘reap the biggest dividends’ .
Kalisa reveals the main issue with Rwanda’s proposal: it’s unworkable. It’s unworkable, primarily as the infrastructure isn’t in place for a rapid change in driving habits. Secondly, it is unworkable because Rwanda’s largely rural population live on roughly $160 a month ; making electric cars unattainable, and any tax rises undoubtedly painful.
The potential problems stemming from these plans are arguably symptoms of Rwanda’s political system. Rwanda can be described as a metaphorical onion: it is a complicated, multi-layered country. Looking at the first layer, Rwanda is a success story for a post conflict state following the 1994 genocide. Under Paul Kagame’s leadership, the nation has seen the development of a thriving environmentally-friendly economy. Poverty rates have declined and life expectancy is rising. Rwanda’s accomplishments in a short space of time have earned the country the nickname ‘the Singapore of Africa’, due to the similar economic models of both countries, becoming the only Sub-Saharan nation to come close to emulating Singapore’s annual growth . Western leaders have been quick to shower praise upon Kagame for his achievements in following Singapore’s footsteps.
However, like Singapore, economic gains come at the cost of political freedoms and the rights taken for granted in democracies . Certainly, these facets of the Rwandan socio-economic model may not be initially apparent. Yet, Charles Wachira from Towards Freedom points to evidence of dissidents becoming victims of kidnapping, imprisonment and even assassinations. These actions are why Wachira goes as far to describe Rwanda as ‘one of the world’s cruellest states’ .
From history it is well established that authoritarianism rarely works indefinitely, trade-offs of political freedoms for economic growth will eventually catch up with Rwanda . Singapore has pacified much of the population through participation in quasi-democratic elections and a generous welfare state. The same cannot be said for Rwanda, elections remain obviously fraudulent, and the country lacks suitable social policies; illustrated by the tax on fossil fuel vehicles.
Indeed, a situation not too different to the French gilet jaune movement could develop, where anti fuel duty protests spark broader anti-government protests .
Rwanda’s current model of government is unsustainable long term, lacking the resources to properly quell calls for more freedom in the same manner as Singapore. Perhaps a sign that this imitation is not the right path for Rwanda. Rightfully so, the country is praised for its strides towards a green economy. Indeed, its sustainable transport plans are unrivalled throughout Africa. Imagine if these policies could be combined with democratic reforms. Rwanda could then become a free, prosperous country and more than ‘just’ the Singapore of Africa.
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