Is there hope for the African Union (AU)? The short answer is yes. Only because the 27th Summit of the African Union Heads of State and Government was held in Kigali, Rwanda. If this event had been held anywhere else on the continent, the accompanying scepticism would have been too much to bear and perhaps there would not have been much interest either. Regardless, bringing the AU Summit to Rwanda also raised fresh questions about the country and the presidency of Paul Kagame, a man largely seen across the continent as a dictator.

If you were in Kigali during the Summit, you need not have been at the Convention Centre – a thing of beauty, admittedly – but at the Genocide Memorial, a place of sadness, sorrow and inspiration, to garner any sense of hope for the African Union. Here, the Rwandan genocide – a painful era – is remembered for having brought out the worst in humanity and quickly reminds you of what the country is recovering from.

“This is about our past and our future; our nightmares and dreams; our fear and our hope; which is why we begin where we end…with the country we love…” These are the words you find inscribed as you begin to trace the story of the genocide. They follow you all the way through the memorial, ringing out loud in your head as you pause to ponder and reflect.

For many people, 1994 is all they know about the Rwandan genocide. However, in 1992 there were ‘rehearsals’ in the eastern province of Bugesera. In Nyamata, the capital of Bugesera, at least 10 000 people were reportedly killed during this period, with women and children being targeted the most.

“Many families had been totally wiped out, with no one to remember or document their deaths. The streets were littered with corpses. Dogs were eating the rotting flesh of their owners. The country smelt of the stench of death… Rwanda was dead.” These are more of the words you read as you walk around the Genocide Memorial. You begin to feel something shift inside you, your stomach turns, you cringe at the sight of pictures of dead, bloodied bodies. You can almost hear the screams of children as machetes in the hands of merciless individuals descended on their little bodies. You freeze, literally.

The memory of past traumas can help us imagine a different future for the continent, the author says (Image courtesy of Flickr/ Trocaire)
The memory of past traumas can help us imagine a different future for the continent, the author says (Image courtesy of Flickr/ Trocaire)

Unity is the prerequisite for prosperity

Back at the Kigali Convention Centre, Kagame is giving his opening remarks. “Let us reflect together on the meaning and purpose of unity, the first principle of our organisation,” he says. “Belief in the healing power of unity is the defining virtue of African political culture. By upholding the principle of unity in an increasingly divided world, Africa has a lot to offer.”

He is echoing the words spoken days earlier by the outgoing AU Commission Chairperson, Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma: “We must be Pan African in our outlook and actions, as we collectively reflect on the African paradox: a rich continent, yet its people are poor… As a continent, we must respect the lives of our people.”

President Kagame again: “Unity of Africa should never be subject to preconditions or exceptions; lasting solutions always involve everyone.” It is a theme he would take to the State Banquet that was held in honour of his guests, other African heads of state. “We never had to be taught to feel like Africans. It is effortless and natural,” he says. “Unity is the prerequisite for prosperity, as much as it is for peace. The dividend of liberation should be improvements in wellbeing for all Africans.”

Leaders who hark back to former glory but fail to deliver

At this last remark, you have to wonder if Kagame’s peers were listening to him. This is the same clique that screams ad nauseam about sovereignty and how they fought off imperialism but are failing to deliver the most basic of services to their citizens. In return for demanding services, citizens in most African countries are routinely answered with tear gas, communications surveillance and other restrictions on the so-called freedom so gallantly fought for.

This is what the AU has repeatedly failed to address with either urgency or sincerity, opting rather to distance itself from the various crises plaguing the region in favour of ineffective diplomacy. Against this backdrop, the whole institution comes across as a sham; an elite syndicate meant to stroke egos and reaffirm the mediocrity passed off to citizens as ‘good governance’.

Indeed, as South Sudan went up in flames it became very hard, for example, to ascertain what the AU would actually do to contain the conflict. Meanwhile, the United Nations was moving with haste, seeking an urgent response, aided by powerful Western countries. Can’t we do better for ourselves as Africans?

In Rwanda, almost every conversation you have is aimed at reaffirming your dignity as a human being and as an African. It is a conscious decision taken post the genocide to use dignity as the value of interacting with one another. It is on this basis that the government interacts with its citizens and other Africans.

If you hold an African passport, you get your visa upon arrival in Rwanda – no humiliating questions asked. You can register a business within six hours. You can secure employment permits within three days (if all is in order) and you can rest assured of radically refreshing service with each encounter you make.

If this is the Africa we as Africans want, then Rwanda is already leading the way in the renaissance. They are just waiting for everyone else to get on board. Hope for Africa abounds here.