German Policing

The national discussion on U.S. policing has me thinking about my semester seminar with Leipzig University, where we worked with German law students to do a comparative analysis on each country’s approach to certain policies and legal issues. I’ve also been to Germany a few times and seen firsthand how police operate and are regarded.

Like so much else in Germany, law enforcement is heavily shaped by the past. As in every authoritarian state, the police were a key instrument of Nazi oppression. Cops spied on and arrested political enemies, deported Jews, guarded ghettos, and helped kill more than a million people on the eastern front.

Ironically, some of the postwar reforms of German policing was also influenced by the Allies, including the United States. Since Germany is a federal constitutional republic much like our own, and relatively large and diverse, it offers a fairly good point of comparison. Here are some key points:

➡️ There is no German FBI. Law enforcement is handled at the state level but with similar national standards The closest equivalent—the delightfully named Office for the Protection of the Constitution—cannot make arrests, has limited surveillance powers, and all its actions can be challenged in court or by any German citizen. It is also banned from exchanging information with police except through a dedicated counterterrorism forum.

➡️ Before they even start, police applicants must pass personality and intelligence tests. Cops usually endure up to two and a half years of training, whereas U.S. training can vary wildly from 11 weeks to eight months (the latter being the average). In addition to weapons training, German police are required to visit a concentration camp; take classes in law, ethics, and police history; and learn techniques in deescalation and nonlethal force.

➡️ German police officers do not handle minor infractions like parking tickets nor respond to calls about noise and the like. Non-emergencies are handled by unarmed but uniformed city employees. (This was an idea of the Allies, who wanted to “demilitarize and civilize police matters”.)

➡️ Controversially, German police have what is known as a “monopoly of force”. Gun ownership in Germany is low—with about 5.5 million private firearms, mostly for hunting and sport—and shootings are thus rare. Fewer guns on the streets means officers feel less threatened and are less likely to pull out their weapons or respond with force. Moreover, violence is generally frowned upon in German society; the head of Berlin’s police forced noted that “even drawing a gun can lead to a police officer requesting psychological support.”

➡️ Regardless of the reasons, the use of weapons, let alone fatal police shootings, is rare in Germany. In 2011, German police fired only 85 bullets in total; in the U.S., 84 shots were fired at just one murder suspect in NYC. In 2018, German police fatally shot 11 people and injured 34; in the U.S., with a population four times Germany’s, over 100 times as many people (1,098) were killed by police. One state alone, Minnesota, saw 13 fatal shootings—two more than all Germany (with 88 million people versus Minnesota’s 5.6 million).

➡️ Of course, German law enforcement, like any human institution, is not perfect. Some have questioned whether the country’s approach is too passive, especially in the face of terrorism and political violence. There have been plenty of scandals concerning excessive violence, particularly towards immigrants; hence the country recently had the biggest protests regarding racism outside the U.S.

As one German police academy instructor advised, the most important lesson is that institutions like the police cannot change unless a society’s values change with it. “The police are a mirror of society. You cannot turn the police upside down and leave society as it is”.

Happy Birthday to the United Nations

Happy 75th birthday to the United Nations, a deeply flawed and troubled organization that is nonetheless more indispensable than ever—and has accomplished a lot more than most people think.

It was on this day in 1945 that fifty countries ratified the UN Charter, which established the organization along with the framework of the international system. An audacious and idealistic document, it articulated a commitment to uphold the human rights and wellbeing of all citizens, addressing “economic, social, health, and related problems”, and “universal respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion”. The organization now counts nearly four times as many members, at 193.

The United Nations Charter at 75: Between Force and Self-Defense ...

Of course, we Americans know full well how hard it is to get even this one country to work together—imagine close to 200 countries spanning eight billion people and a multitude of languages, religions, cultures, types of governments, and levels of development. The UN is only as effective as its members allow it to be, and its failures and limitations are a reflection of our own as a species.

Moreover, it is worth considering the context of its emergence: A war that had killed over 60 million people (three percent of all humans at the time), after a millennia of endless conflict where violence was the norm and enslavement, rape, looting, and other things we now call war crimes (courtesy of the UN) were just the way of things. For most of our quarter of a million years of existence, we rarely knew about, much less cared, for anyone outside our immediate tribe or band. Human rights and civil liberties were alien concepts that would not have made sense to anyone. The vast majority of people lived in grinding poverty, oppression, fear, and ignorance.

From the ashes of the worst conflict in history emerges an organization trying to cultivate peace, progress, and unity among our species—not just out of idealism, but also based on the sober realism that some problems are too big for any one nation to handle. Needless to say, it has failed in its lofty aspirations time and again, as most of us know all too well—but that’s to be expected given just how bold of an undertaking it is. And for all the failures, there are plenty of successes we take for granted.

Eisenhower, far from a bleeding-heart globalist, once said that the UN “represents man’s best organized hope to substitute the conference table for the battlefield”. If nothing else, the organization has served as an outlet for frustrations and rivalries that would otherwise manifest on the battlefield. The constant grandstanding between the U.S. and Russia may be frustrating—and has often led to devastating deadlock during crises—but imagine the alternative course of action without an international platform? Iran and Saudi Arabia were on the verge of war some months ago, but instead to the UN to make their cases and take diplomatic shots at each other instead. It likely no coincidence that despite so many close calls, the UN-centered world has seen an unprecedented decline in the large scale interstate wars that were once so common (though this is not to make light of the numerous proxy and civil wars that have continued to exact a heavy toll).

Given that most Americans do not even know how their own government works, it stands to reason that few know the workings and complexities of the international system, either.

Few people know that it was the UN Secretary-General, U Thant of Burma, who played a key role in defusing the Cuban Missile Crisis; JFK admitted in private that “U Thant has put the world deeply in his debt” — though Thant is scarcely known today.

Many of us take for granted the modern amenities and benefits, let alone realize their origin in the UN. The ability to mail and ship things globally; to access goods and products from around the world; and to travel anywhere with relative ease are all due to UN organizations, treaties, or conferences that established uniform standards and rules for airlines, companies, and governments. Heck, even seat belts became widespread through deliberate UN policy.

Few know the work of UNICEF, one of the oldest UN organization, which in 2018 alone helped care for 27 million babies born in places with high infant and maternal mortality; treated four million children in 73 countries for severe acute malnutrition;\and provided over 65 million children with vaccines against common killers like diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis (half the world’s children get their vaccine through UNICEF). Over the last thirty years, it has saved over 90 million children.

The much maligned WHO helped eradicate smallpox, which once killed millions annually throughout history, and is on the verge of eradicating polio as well. It has helped most people with HIV/AIDS get access to treatment, and is currently working on making insulin more available, too. With respect to the recent pandemic, it also used its diplomacy to get China to finally open itself to an international team of scientists—which included two Americans. It recently helped stem the second largest Ebola outbreak in Congo, to little fanfare.

Research Roundup: 38th anniversary of smallpox eradication, the ...

The 1987 Montreal conference convened by the UN Environment Programme helped lead to an international treaty that has successfully repaired the ozone layer.

The World Food Programme provides food and assistance to 86.7 million people in 83 countries, keeping them from the brink of starvation. The Food and Agriculture Organization has helped eradicate rinderpest, a deadly livestock disease that is only the second one in history (besides smallpox) to be eradicated. It also maintains the world’s largest and most comprehensive statistical database on food and agriculture.

The UN Population Fund helps an average of two million women a month with their pregnancies, which could be deadly in most countries.

The UN regularly monitors elections in about fifty countries, which not only ensures a free and fair political process but has prevented numerous civil wars and conflicts.

All these achievements no doubt come with caveats, and do not undo the very real and tragic failings, from Rwanda to the Syrian and Yemeni civil wars. But 75 years is not a long time to undo 250,000 years of tribalism and disunity. As one UN chief put it, “the United Nations was not created to bring us to heaven, but in order to save us from hell”. And considering that the average American pays less than two dollars a year to cover the U.S.’ regular budget dues to the UN, I think it is a work in progress worth supporting and improving upon.

Whataboutism and Geopolitics

As China, Russia, Iran, and Turkey hypocritically but accurately call out the United States. for its various social and political dysfunctions—usually as a snide counterpoint to whenever we do the same to them—I am reminded of the old Soviet Cold War strategy of “whatboutism“.

In 1947, when William Averell Harriman, the U.S. Secretary of Commerce, mentioned “Soviet imperialism” in a speech in Seattle, the official Soviet publication Pravda wasted no time in punching back. To paraphrase its response: “American warmongers want to drop bombs on the Soviet Union because they don’t like its social order, but the Soviet people, though they consider U.S. laws on race to be insulting to human dignity, “do not intend on that account to turn modern weapons against Mississippi or Georgia.”

In short, you want to bomb us for human rights abuses, but by your standard we could just as well do the same to you.

This exchange is indicative of a rhetorical strategy in international relations known as whataboutism, which Olga Kazan explains in the Atlantic “occurs when officials implicated in wrongdoing whip out a counter-example of a similar abuse from the accusing country, with the goal of undermining the legitimacy of the criticism itself. (In Latin, this fallacious rhetorical defense is called tu quoque, or “you, too.”)

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Courtesy of the Altlantic: A cartoon from a 1967 issue of Pravda depicts racial tensions in U.S. cities. Under the Statue of Liberty, armed troops are marching with labels reading, “Newark, Detroit and Milwaukee,” the sites of riots. A caption underneath read, “Shame of America” 

This strategy is also encapsulated by the Soviet / Russian catchphrase, “And you are lynching blacks!” This stems from an old Russian political joke about a dispute between an American and Russian. After receiving criticism of his country because of the deadly 1903 anti-Jewish Kishinev pogrom, the Russian Minister of the Interior Vyacheslav von Plehve pointed out “The Russian peasants were driven to frenzy. Excited by race and religious hatred, and under the influence of alcohol, they were worse than the people of the Southern States of America when they lynch [blacks]”.

Unsurprisingly, the Soviet government continued deflecting from their own sins by highlighting America’s, and we gave them plenty to work with:

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“This guy has an honest, open face”
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To this day, similar strategies are used by America’s rivals to undermine our position while strengthening their own. China went so far as to attack our own bumbled response to COVID-19 (through LEGO blocks no less).

Of course, hypocrisy is not unique to the United States, nor any society for that matter; the “great powers” of the world have always had their skeletons, which are all too easy to expose and criticize given the presumptions that come with being a leader (real or perceived). But pronouncing yourself the greatest country in the world and blustering through every international effort or organization makes your pedestal all the higher to be thrown from.

Happy Juneteenth!

Once celebrated largely in Texas, this once-obscure holiday now has renewed national importance. While it did not mark an end to slavery—that wouldn’t come until the Thirteenth Amendment was ratified in December of that year—it has grown into a broader commemoration concerning slavery, freedom, and civil rights.

On June 19, 1865, Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger landed on Galveston Island with more than 2,000 Union troops. He stood at the Headquarters District of Texas in Galveston and read “General Order No. 3”:

The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free.

Black people who heard the news erupted in what Gibbs calls “a moment of indescribable joy.”

Celebrations of Juneteenth — which combines the word June with Nineteenth — began in 1866, a year and a day after Granger’s announcement.

Black men, women and children dressed in their finest attire and gathered to sing spirituals, pray, play baseball and eat. Often the menus included fried chicken, cornbread, greens and handmade strawberry soda.

“The red color of the soda symbolized blood shed during slavery,” Gibbs said.

There would be special invitations for the oldest freed men and women to recount the horrors of slavery and the sweetness of freedom.

“This was partying with purpose — not only for the people to join the celebration but to learn directly from the past,” Gibbs said.

Another powerful ingredient in early Juneteenth celebrations was that the early festivities took place on land owned by black people.

“There was an extra sense of pride,” Gibbs said. “It was a matter of racial pride and uplift to show even in the face of searing racial hatred, ‘We are property owners.’ It showed progress.

Appropriately enough, the original General Order No. 3 was recently rediscovered in the U.S. National Archives, after researchers there were spurred by the recent protests to find it.

A growing number of people are calling for Juneteenth to be a national holiday, as it marks the first major step towards ending the source of human bondage and bringing our society closer to its constitutional ideals.

The New Yorker has a particularly good explanation about why this local holiday is of national relevance:

The Emancipation Proclamation itself had been hedged to balance Northern interests and to incentivize Southern states with at least the possibility of retaining slavery if they rejoined the Union: the order freed only those people enslaved in areas of the country that were rebelling against the federal government. But Texas was in rebellion, and its black population did qualify for freedom on January 1, 1863, when the proclamation took effect. Texas ignored the proclamation, as did the ten other Confederate states. This all indicates a fundamental misunderstanding of the significance of Juneteenth. The fact that slaveholders extracted thirty additional months of uncompensated labor from people who had been bought, sold, and worked to exhaustion, like livestock, throughout their lives is cause for mourning, not celebration. In honoring that moment, we should recognize a moral at the heart of that day in Galveston and in the entirety of American life: there is a vast chasm between the concept of freedom inscribed on paper and the reality of freedom in our lives.

In that regard, Juneteenth exists as a counterpoint to the Fourth of July; the latter heralds the arrival of American ideals, the former stresses just how hard it has been to live up to them. This failure was not exclusive to the South. Northern states generally abolished slavery in the decades after the American Revolution, but many slaveholders there, rather than free the people they held in bondage, sold them to traders in the South, or moved to states where the institution was still legal. The black men, women, and children who heard Granger’s pronouncement a hundred and fifty-five years ago in Galveston were not slaves; they were a barometer of American democracy.

There’s a paradox inherent in the fact that emancipation is celebrated primarily among African-Americans, and that the celebration is rooted in a perception of slavery as something that happened to black people, rather than something that the country committed. The paradox rests on the presumption that the arrival of freedom should be greeted with gratitude, instead of with self-reflection about what allowed it to be deprived in the first place. Emancipation is a marker of progress for white Americans, not black ones.

The Peaceful Erosion of Despotic Regimes

The most important theorist of nonviolent revolutions is the late political scientist Gene Sharp. A conscientious objector during the Korean War who spent nine months in prison, Sharp became a close student of Mahatma Gandhi’s struggles. His work set out to extract the lessons of the Indian revolt against the British. He wanted to understand the weaknesses of authoritarian regimes—and how nonviolent movements could exploit them. Sharp distilled what he learned into a 93-page handbook, From Dictatorship to Democracy, a how-to guide for toppling autocracy.

Sharp’s foundational insight is embedded in an aphorism: “Obedience is at the heart of political power.” A dictator doesn’t maintain power on his own; he relies on individuals and institutions to carry out his orders. A successful democratic revolution prods these enablers to stop obeying. It makes them ashamed of their complicity and fearful of the social and economic costs of continued collaboration.

Sharp posited that revolutionaries should focus first on the regime’s softest underbelly: the media, the business elites, and the police. The allegiance of individuals in the outer circle of power is thin and rooted in fear. By standing strong in the face of armed suppression, protesters can supply examples of courage that inspire functionaries to stop carrying out orders, or as Sharp put it, to “withhold cooperation.” Each instance of resistance provides the model for further resistance. As the isolation of the dictators grows—as the inner circles of power join the outer circle in withholding cooperation—the regime crumbles.

This is essentially what transpired in Ukraine in 2014. When the country’s president backed away from plans to join the European Union, a crowd amassed in Kyiv’s central square, the Maidan. The throngs initially had no avowed intention or realistic hope of overthrowing the kleptocratic president, Viktor Yanukovych. But instead of letting the demonstrators shout themselves hoarse in the thick of subfreezing winter, Yanukovych set about violently confronting them. This tactic backfired horribly. A movement with limited aims became a full-blown revolution. Oligarchs quietly slunk away from a leader they had long subsidized. Lackeys who had faithfully served the regime resigned, for fear of attracting the public’s ire. In the bitter end, Yanukovych found himself isolated, alone with his own family and his Russian advisers, destined for exile.

—Franklin Foer, The Atlantic

The Three Arrows

The Three Arrows is the symbol of the Social Democratic Party of Germany during its resistance to Nazism in the 1930s. It reflected the party’s opposition to totalitarianism in all forms, namely reactionary conservatism (represented by monarchism), fascism, and communism.

Below is an official election poster from the 1932 parliamentary election urging voters to choose the SDP. Its slogan, “Against Papen, Hitler, Thälmann”, would prove prescient: Papen was an aristocratic nationalist who helped bring Hitler to power, and became an ally and official of the Nazi regime; Thälmann was committed Stalinist and head of the German Communist Party, which since 1928 was largely controlled and funded by the Soviet Union.

Of course, we all know how this election ultimately turned out: Though the Nazi Party lost 34 seats, it nonetheless remained a major force in government, eventually seizing power just months later. (By the time the next elections took place in March 1933, there was already widespread repression and vote-rigging).

But even after the Nazis consolidated power and began openly terrorizing their opponents, the SDP and its allies did not give up. The party joined with liberals, unionists, and other anti-fascist and anti-communist groups to form the Iron Front, a militant organization that brought the fight to the increasingly violent paramilitary groups of the Nazi and Communist parties. The Three Arrows remained a symbol of this movement and was often worn as an armband; it typically accompanied the slogan, “neither Stalin’s slaves nor Hitler’s henchmen”.

For its part, the SDP was the only party to vote against the Enabling Act of 1933, which gave Hitler the dictatorial powers that allowed the Nazis to secure control over the country. The party was thereafter banned, and along with communists and other leftists, saw many of its members imprisoned or killed. After the war, it was reestablished in West Germany, but forced to merge with the ruling Communist Party of East Germany. It remains one of Germany’s major parties.

Echoes of the Roman Empire

The more you read about the history and politics of Rome, the more you realize that America follows the Roman example far more closely than just architecture and Latin terminology; even the word “senate” roughly translates from Latin to “council of elders” — an apt description of the generation gap between those with political power and everyone else (though to both the Greeks and the Romans, this was not a bad thing; age signified experience after all).

Read some of the descriptions of Rome’s political system by historians like Adrian Goldsworthy and Richard Miles with today’s America in mind.

The Romans valued military service above all else. It was seen as both a noble obligation of citizenship and as a way to drum up glory and thus political support. Over time, Roman politicians began to stress their personal military service — or at least their support of the military — to get elected. Political factions increasingly supported military conquests as a way to get popular approval, distract the masses with the glory of triumph, or to prove they’ve got the chops to govern.

Ironically, this deification of the military — for which the U.S. is unique among established democracies — would contribute to Rome’s downfall, as one general or soldier after another would seize power against venal politicians by capitalizing on their popularity following a victory or distinguished war record (only to of course become venal politicians themselves).

Roman high office was notoriously and openly cliquish. Only the same handful of wealthy, intermarried families had a shot at power. The Romans believed that merit and achievement passed on from generation to generation, prompting politicians to emphasize the accomplishment or one past or distant relative or another (which was easy to do since they all intermarried and could thus point to -someone- to do the trick). This had the obvious effect of creating political dynasties that made it very hard for so called “new men” to enter into politics, or at least the highest offices. Eventually, when the republic and later the empire crumbled under the weight of incompetent and corrupt politicians, these new men — now emphasizing their nonpolitical nature and success in business or the military — capitalized on the public’s disgust with established politicians, only to become part of the problem in the end.

Politics in Rome was highly personal, given the aforementioned dominance of families. Politicians openly curried favor with certain families for support, and both sides expected something in return. For this reason, Rome did not have political parties per se; there was little in the way of established policy or consistently ideology, as politicians just went with whatever would advance their interests or those of their allies or clients. Alliances shifted constantly; everyone invoked public service and the need to serve the public, but it was an open secret that politics was just a means to an end of power, wealth, and glory. Again, none of this was unusual; the Romans openly tried to work within this system to their own ends.

During emergencies, most commonly war, the Romans suspended politics as usual and appointed a “temporary” solution in the form of the “dictatorship”, a Latin term the describes a single individual’s ability to take control — i.e. “dictate” — policy for the good of the republic. Though the office typically lasted just six months, the famous case of Julius Cesar, who was alleged to have sought permanent dictator status, shows the age-old problem of balancing liberty and security.

Even Roman culture mirrored our own: The Romans stressed the material wealth, prosperity, and relative freedom that came with becoming a Roman citizen. They advertised to citizens and foreigners alike the sophisticated baths, restaurants (possibly a Roman invention), and other amenities unique to Roman life. They even developed a sophisticated credit system, not unlike today’s credit cards, to allow average people to ostensibly benefit.

Comparing America to the Roman Republic and Empire is a cliche among political scientists — but clearly for good reason I think.

The International Standards That Make Policing Better

Though most Americans dismiss if not deride international law, ironically the policing standards developed by the U.N., Council of Europe, and other international bodies affirm if not exceed our vaunted constitutional standards.

Many of the problems with American policing come down to the principle of reasonableness and the doctrine of qualified immunity, which the U.S. has adopted instead of the more common international standard of necessity and proportionality.

Reasonableness allows law enforcement officers to use lethal force when they believe it is “reasonable” to do so (based on their perception of the severity of the crime underway, the threat posed by the suspect, whether arrest is being resisted, etc.). Qualified immunity shields police from being sued except under the narrowest circumstances. In the already-rare chance that violence or death at the hands of police reaches court, the police officer’s assessment dominates, leading most often to “not guilty” verdicts.

The Supreme Court has nearly consistently given police a lot of leeway to use force; I recommend reading Sotomayor’s dissent in Mullenix v. Luna, where she argued that the Court is basically sanctioning a shoot first, think later” approach to policing. Having worked in both prosecution and defense, her perspective is uniquely more comprehensive than other justices.

However, under international law — which governs most other countries — the use of both lethal and “less-lethal” weapons (such as rubber bullets and tear gas) must be restricted to situations of necessity and in proportion to the associated risks. (Contrary to popular belief, rubber bullets and the like are not considered nonlethal; they are defined as “offering a substantially reduced risk of death when compared to conventional firearms”.) Foreign and international courts have found that the use of less-lethal weapons may amount to torture or ill-treatment if not “proportionate to the aim pursued, namely to disperse a non-peaceful gathering” and because the severity of the injuries are not consistent with “the strict use by the police officers of the force.” International law also lacks any equivalent to qualified immunity for police conduct.

Do You Want a Strong UN or Not?

The irony of Americans demanding that the WHO stand up to China is that this would require the UN to have the kind of power that Americans repeatedly (and fearfully) object to.

You can’t demand that an organization kowtow to sovereign states…and then complain when it has no choice but to kowtow to sovereign states. (Even so, the WHO used its good relations with China to convince its stodgy government to open up by mid February.)

I think this was put best by Roger Cochetti, who served as director of the D.C. office of the United Nations Association of the United States (UNA-USA). As he writes in The Hill:

Although it’s sometimes popular in Hollywood movies to portray UN agencies as supranational organizations that directly intervene in any country they wish whenever they wish, nothing could be further from the truth. UN agencies are associations of sovereign independent governments. Particularly when it comes to something happening entirely inside a single country, the UN agency is bound to fully cooperate with that country and basically accept what that member country reports. And if some other country does not accept the reporting country’s statements, then that second country is free to object or complain.    

There is no shortage of scholars who advocate that the WHO (and perhaps other UN agencies) should be transformed into a supranational organization whose staff directly and forcibly interfere within any country whenever staff sees fit. National governments — including the U.S. — would have to accept the notion that a multinational WHO bureaucracy would have the authority to directly investigate and interfere with national and local health authorities whenever the WHO staff saw fit to do. Imagine a WHO team of experts forcing their way into Fort Dix, N.J., to independently investigate the U.S. report of Swine Flu in 1976.

Until or unless UN agencies like the WHO are transformed into such supranational organizations, these agencies will rely on national permission about events within a member country. And in case you were wondering, there has been virtually no support within the United States to transform the WHO into a supranational organization.

The reality is that countries like China are far likelier to work with an ostensibly neutral UN bureaucrat than with an American. That’s why the WHO ended up being the one to help Americans from the CDC and NIH get into China. And that’s why organizations like the WHO exist in the first place. Good luck getting close to 200 countries to agree to anything without some sort shared forum for discussion and representation. True, it is often inefficient, sclerotic, and even at times corrupt, but it’s the best thing we’ve got right now — unless we want to give more power, money, and authority to the international institutions we otherwise hate and fear.

The Singapore of Africa

It’s amazing how the fate of nations could change in the span of decades. In 1994, the tiny central African nation of Rwanda seemed to suddenly succumb to a level of carnage not seen since the Second World War (notwithstanding other under-the-radar conflicts like the Congo War).

Over a period of just 100 days, up to 1 million people were slaughtered by paramilitaries and even friends and neighbors, mostly by machetes and small arms. Already poor and politically dysfunctional, Rwanda was ignored and let down by the international community even in its most calamitous state—how could it ever recover from such an orgy of bloodshed and neglect?

Well, close to thirty years later, recover it has. While undemocratic and undeveloped, it has made incredible strides for a nation that faced one of the most horrific genocides in human history. How could Rwanda, of all places, become so stable and economically sophisticated?

“There are a few fundamentals you have to understand. Firstly, our country is the same size as the U.S. state of Maryland, but our population is around 12 million people. Secondly, we have no natural resources — no oil or gold or anything else that countries benefit from,” explains Claudette Irere, director general at Rwanda’s Ministry of Youth and Information and Communication Technology. “This means the only way for us to move forward and to build our future is to empower people and make good use of technology. With this strategy, we are shifting our country from an agrarian economy to a knowledge-based economy.”

Rwanda is beginning to leapfrog developed countries in fundamental areas such as smart city infrastructure, vocational training, and strategic foreign investment. As of January this year, 4G/LTE networks cover more than 95 percent of the country, and a mix of public and private players are working together on a national roll-out of fiber-optic broadband. As its citizens and businesses get connected, Kigali is becoming an African hub for multinational tech companies, including Google, Facebook, and Amazon.

[…]

Between 2001 and 2014, Rwanda achieved an annual growth rate of 9 percent and earned a global reputation as an attractive business destination. According to the World Bank’s 2018 Ease of Doing Business Index, Rwanda has risen above countries like Italy, Belgium, and Israel to become the 41st most business-friendly nation on earth. Rwanda was also the index’s biggest business reformer, with activities like starting up, registering property, paying taxes, and enforcing contracts all becoming increasingly easier in the country.

“Urbanization is becoming more of a challenge for things like traffic and public transportation. This creates a lot of opportunities for technology and innovation,” Irere says. “Working with global companies that lead in areas such as the internet of things (IoT) is helping us understand the problems we must solve before our city grows beyond our control.”

Kigali has even developed a culture of digital entrepreneurship that seems straight out of Silicon Valley.

One local company that’s making the most of Kigali’s digital infrastructure is ride-hailing app SafeMotos, founded by a Canadian entrepreneur who fell in love with the city. Road traffic collisions are a significant problem in Rwanda and its neighboring countries, with 40 percent more road deaths occurring per 100,000 people than in low- and middle-income nations in any other part of the world. To combat this problem, SafeMotos provides drivers with smartphones and pulls data from an app to measure their performance on trips. Customers are connected only with drivers who meet a certain safety threshold — an algorithmic score of at least 90 out of 100.

To be sure, Rwanda is far from idyllic. The moniker “Singapore of Africa” is apt in more ways than one: Not only is it an island of relative stability, development, and technological progress, but like the southeast Asian city state, it is also low-key authoritarian. Its president, Paul Kagame, who is credited with helping defeat the genocidal regime and carrying the country though to its recovery, has been in power since 1994—and is slated to remain in power until 2034, thanks to changes in the constitution that he has presided over. He won 99 percent of the vote in the most recent election, while critics from journalists to government officials have been imprisoned for their insolence; some may even have been assassinated.

The country is even pioneering the use of drones to deliver medical supplies to remote communities and enforce its COVID-19 lockdown. By the standards of Africa and even the world, Rwanda has one of the lowest rates of corruption, which no doubt accounts for a lot of its business success.

“The most obvious example of this was the inquest into the assassination of Patrick Karegeya, Rwanda’s former head of external intelligence, who was strangled in a South African five-star hotel on New Year’s Eve 2013. In January 2019 the case opened in a courtroom on the outskirts of Johannesburg, a city where every news agency and broadcaster, from AP to Xinhua, AFP to Reuters, the BBC to DPA, has an office. It was a story on a par with the murder of Jamal Khashoggi or the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko in terms of international interest, massively diplomatically embarrassing to the Rwandan government — the South African Hawks hold it directly responsible — and the courtroom was a ten minute taxi ride from various well-staffed newsrooms. When I turned up, I was astonished by the pathetic press turnout. At first I assumed that the victim’s family and lawyers just hadn’t been very efficient at getting the word out, but if anything, press attendance got worse as the days passed and more and more hugely awkward details — all of them wonderfully quotable as they were being revealed in court — were brought to light. A massive opportunity missed.”

Such repression is not only obviously unjust and problematic in its own right, but it threatens the country’s incredible progress over the last 26 years since the genocide. Rwandans have demonstrated remarkable resilience, innovation, and creativity, but all that will be hard to maintain under the shadow of such a paranoid and stifling regime. I can only hope this promising success story can expand to more than just economics and include a free and democratic country—where such potential and prosperity can truly be unleashed.

Source: Lauren Razavi