Nairobi — On June 20 as we drove to President Paul Kagame's country home in Muhazi, we encountered what was once a very common sight around Rwanda.
A group of prisoners, in garish pink (Rwandese prison authorities have a hopeless fashion sense) were walking single file -- as soldiers would do -- back to a nearby prison.
Many of them participated in the 1994 genocide.
The first thing you noticed was that they did not have an armed guard keeping an eye on them.
Now, I am suspicious of people who argue that "every country is different" or is "unique" and therefore we should not generalise, for example, about Africa.
I am suspicious because when politicians make that argument, they are doing so to avoid being judged by the international community.
And when the international community makes it, it is because it's running away from the responsibility to intervene and stop a dictator from oppressing or robbing the citizens of his country.
All human beings and countries are, essentially, the same.
The differences among countries are mostly of form and style.
In Rwanda, if you speak to RPF intellectuals, you will hear the words "Rwanda's case is unconventional" used very many times. Even President Kagame uses them.
But even I have to make a small concession here and admit that Rwanda is indeed very different from most -- if not all -- African countries in some aspects, and the prisoner story is one of them.
The first time I encountered these unguarded prisoners was in 1996.
I was driving into Kigali in the company of a graduate school friend who had since returned to Rwanda and was a senior aide in the president's office.
There were over 200 prisoners, some of them former military men, mark you, working in a field guarded only by a solitary armed soldier.
I was surprised, and asked my friend what was going on.
He explained: "You see, in old Rwanda, everyone was part of an open or secret cell. These structures are carried forward in the prison, and every prisoner is part of a cell."
"Now, what you have to do is figure out the cells and the leaders, and you cut a deal with the leaders when you are taking the prisoners in their cell out to work. If he gives his word that the prisoners will not escape, they won't escape. You don't need a guard," he said.
"If he says 'no', and you insist, however many guards you have, they will try and make a break."
They say that when you get five Kenyans in a room, you get five political parties.
If you end up with five Rwandese in a room, you get five secret cells (at least, according to the RPF, in the "old" Rwanda).
This is one reason so many people were killed in the 1994 genocide.
The command to kill Tutsi spread quickly and efficiently because of the cell structure, and Hutu men killed their Tutsi wives and children without a second thought, because what the cell demanded, the cell got.
One gets the sense that this cell structure and discipline has, in a reversal of misfortune, helped Kagame turn Rwanda around.
However, it also makes Rwanda an inhospitable country for the noisy, often chaotic, freewheeling party politics of countries like Kenya.
Some of the things that happen in Kagame's Rwanda are very unAfrican indeed. A few examples will do:
In late 2007, the government initiated an aggressive malaria prevention programme. The results?
In 2008, the number of people reporting to health centres with malaria dropped a record 66 per cent.
The only other country that came close was Ethiopia, which managed a 33 per cent reduction. In 2009 there was a drop of 75 per cent from the existing base.
As you read this, Rwanda has a problem many African, Asian, and Latin American countries would die to have -- a surplus of malaria medicine! By the end of 2010, to use the slogan, Rwanda may well have kicked out malaria. In three years flat.
Again, a few years ago, the government decided that no citizen of the country should perish in his house because he had no health insurance or there was no ambulance to take him/her to a hospital.
A private company was contracted to import and manage an ambulance service using, not the traditional minivans, but robust Nissan 4-wheel drives that were kitted out to be ambulances. A companion SMS service was then built for calling up the ambulance.
Rwanda has about six types of health insurance.
Today, it is nearing 100 per cent coverage, including the very poorest. In a few short years, it will have 100 per cent ambulance coverage too.
Thirdly, most of the "people's armies" that come to power after a guerrilla war -- in countries like Ethiopia, Uganda, Angola, Mozambique -- often have a populist mission to be a "productive" army. Once in office though, they settle into the comforts of power and do nothing.
Rwanda bucks the trend. After it came to power, the RPF had the army form its own co-op, the Ingama Credit and Savings Society (CSS).
Every soldier contributes a small portion of his/her monthly salary to the sacco.
The fund became so successful, it started building houses for soldiers.
And it also piled up so much money that it was no longer efficient to keep as a co-operative.
CSS was therefore turned into a bank, and is doing a roaring trade.
It continues to build nearly a thousand personal houses for soldiers every year.
The time is not too far off when every Rwandan serviceman and woman will be the proud owner of a modern house.
And it's the same story with Tristar, the business arm of the RPF. When the RPF came to power, Rwanda was a shell. There was no production.
The army had to go out and harvest abandoned fields, forage for food, or grow it, and bring it to the markets to sell to the shell-shocked population.
Today, the Rwanda army is on the way to being the largest commercial farmer in East Africa.
It also runs one of Africa's best coffee cleaning operations, and is partly responsible for the fact that branded Rwanda coffee is one of the few varieties carried as such by Starbucks in its cafes worldwide.
Every year, the military has an Army Month, which it spends mostly on community service.
On average, they vaccinate 17,000 children for various diseases that month, and build at least 350 houses for people in the villages.
One does not have to be a rocket scientist to figure out what the Rwanda countryside will look like in five years if this is kept up.
And so from its early days collecting and selling vegetables in the market, Tristar as a business was born.
Travelling in Rwanda in the first few years after the genocide, it was hard to see how the country would ever get back on its feet.
The telephone lines had been ripped out, and phone exchanges destroyed.
And I saw a rare sight in African conflict -- the country's main brewery in Gisenyi had been razed.
In many an African, and indeed world, conflict, the warring parties usually agree on one thing; sparing the brewery.
In the morning, the government troops will collect their booze, and the rebels won't attack their beer convoy.
In the evening, the rebels will show up to collect their drink, and the government will not ambush their beer trucks. It is a boy thing.
With their drinks in the stores, the warriors then return to killing each other on the battlefield.
When the RPF decided that, given that theirs is a tiny country anyway, they would not rebuild a copper-based phone system but go cellular, they went to South Africa and eventually pitched camp at the MTN headquarters (them of World Cup fame).
The South Africans thought the Rwandese were joking.
The fellows did not even have a country to speak of, following the genocide, and no African country south of the Sahara had a mobile phone service to speak of.
The Rwanda government then offered MTN a deal it could not refuse. Come to Rwanda as a partner with Tristar.
Don't put in any money if you don't wish to, just bring in your technology and expertise. If the mobile phone business succeeds, Tristar will sell you a stake.
If it fails, Tristar pays you your costs, and you hightail it back to South Africa.
The cellular service was a runaway success, and Tristar made a killing selling a stake to MTN South Africa.
Then the latter expanded, with Tristar as a partner, into Uganda.
About 10 years later, Tristar sold its stake in MTN Uganda, laughing all the way to the bank.
Without Tristar, MTN would have taken years to venture out of South Africa.
Today, Tristar is thought to be the largest real estate developer in East Africa.
Their most lucrative single business, however, was an audacious gamble.
A competitiveness guru in the US, who is a friend of Kagame, and some forward looking friends thought to start a biotech firm, but had difficulty raising the venture capital for it.
When the guru mentioned the project to Kagame. Kagame was hooked.
He called in Tristar, and asked them to invest $40 million.
Tristar baulked, and all but told Kagame to go and jump in Lake Kivu.
After a protracted tug of war, he squeezed about $20 milion out of them.
To cut a long story short, Tristar's stake in the biotech firm is today worth $20 billion.
It also invested in a bio-diesel consortium comprising the California-based Eco-Fuel Global, and the UK's Eco Positive.
By 2014, it is estimated that Tristar's interests in these businesses could be worth over $40 billion.
By then, some optimistic RPF economists speculate, the party's local and international assets could be equal to or larger than Rwanda's gross domestic product -- and also make the RPF one of the richest parties in the world.
That is why, realistically, it will be difficult for any opposition to unseat the RPF at elections any day soon.
With this war chest, and a little vote pinching, it is unbeatable.
That, of course, is if the party doesn't split.
Also, it would have to avoid the high-risk foreign adventures like the invasion -- and short-lived occupation -- of eastern Congo, which humanitarian groups estimate led directly and indirectly to the death of more than 4 million people -- four times as many as were killed in the Rwanda genocide.
Its DRC adventure has, indeed, come back to haunt Rwanda.
The UN and several international organisations have accused Rwanda (and Uganda and Zimbabwe) of plundering the east of the country.
Kigali has repeatedly denied that it pillaged in the DRC, but many observers don't believe it because, they say, Rwanda's economy is still fairly small and even its heady growth rates cannot explain the extensive and expensive real estate and the skyscrapers that litter the Kigali skyline.
Undoubtedly, some Rwandan generals profited from the DRC.
However, with Rwanda's close allies in the UK and USA threatening to cut its legs off if it didn't get out of Congo, Kigali had to scale back, and eventually withdraw.
That removed an embarrassing item from the table for Kagame's Western friends, but analysts argue that it created new threats to his power.
For starters, when Rwanda invaded Congo (then called Zaire), it said it had three objectives:
First, to remove the "genocidal" Rwandese forces that had withdrawn into the DRC, regrouped, and were making regular deadly cross-border raids into Rwanda.
Second, it aimed to punish the government of Zairean dictator Mobutu Sese Seko after his troops crossed into Rwanda and ransacked it.
Third, to stop the killing of the Congolese Tutsi, the Banyamulenge.
In the end, the RPA -- with varied support from Uganda, Ethiopia, Angola, and Zimbabwe -- were surprised to see how quickly Mobutu's army, corrupted by beating up on civilians and robbing them for decades, collapsed in the face of grown-up fire.
The Rwanda-led coalition virtually sleepwalked its way to the capital Kinshasa, and installed the womanising rebel/smuggler Laurent Kabila (father of current president Joseph Kabila) as president in 1997.
Rwanda's withdrawal from DRC, while improving Kagame's international scorecard, proved problematic domestically.
Because Kagame is overzealous in fighting corruption -- and is the kind of man who will chase down a chicken thief if need be -- the fortunes of war that crooked generals had got used to in DRC were not available back in Rwanda.
Foreign occupation is corrupting, and Kagame seems not to have had a smart post-DRC-war settlement for his generals that took that reality into account.
This sowed the seeds that eventually led to the falling out between Kagame and his close allies.
Former army chief of staff Gen Kayumba Nyamwasa, who escaped an assassination attempt in his South African exile last month, represents one face of that post-Congo crisis.
Secondly, the withdrawal from the DRC effectively ended the "Greater Rwanda" project, which aimed to bring the Banyamulenge into an expanded Rwandan state where they would be protected -- and therefore envisaged an annexation of parts of the DRC.
The end of that dream proved very unpopular with RPF's hardline nativists, especially those Tutsi who were refugees in French-speaking Burundi and DRC.
They tend to form the raw edge of the RPF, and feel they are losing out in the "de-Frenchification" of Rwanda, and its slow but sure conversion into an Anglophone state by the Rwandans who lived their refugee life in Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania and the West.
They see this "de-Frenchification" in Rwanda's joining of the East African Community, an English-speaking trading bloc where right-hand-drive cars are the norm (in Rwanda, they drive on the right), and the Commonwealth, a relic of the British Empire.
This is a real ideological divide, and even the self-assured President Kagame can only flip flop when discussing the issue.
Thus, when Rwanda arrested the controversial eastern DRC rebel leader and defender of the Banyamulenge, Gen. Laurent Nkunda -- who has been accused by human rights groups of ordering massacres in eastern DRC -- it went down well internationally.
But not everyone in the RPF ranks was happy.
They saw it as a betrayal, like Israel turning its back on a distressed Jew.
Indeed, the complexity of the Nkunda issue is evident from the fact that Kagame kept emphasising that Rwanda did not arrest him, rather that he "handed himself over" to them.
It is an important distinction because, Kagame argues, it makes it impossible to hand him over to either an international or DRC authority because Rwanda is not sure he would be tried or treated fairly.
In any event, if Kigali were to hand over Nkunda to Kinshasa and he was killed, Kagame too would begin living perilously.
As of now, Kagame acknowledges that Rwanda doesn't know what to do with Nkunda.
It can't keep him (under a loose house arrest) forever, nor can it hand him over.
Awkward issues like Nkunda are a reminder that Kagame has not yet escaped the reality that he is a Tutsi.
No African leader dines with the rich and powerful of the world like Kagame, and long-term it makes sense for him to promote a brand of himself as a national and East African leader -- one reason Rwanda was courageous enough to throw its doors open to other East Africans barely a year into its membership of the EAC.
However, having to crack down on allegedly hatemongering newspapers, owned mostly by right-wing Hutu politicians, and having to arrest politicians like Victoire Ingabire for "spreading genocide ideology'" means he has to fight old tribal wars, and it undermines his goal of being seen as a modern statesman.
Kagame also believes that it is possible to shift the basis of support in Rwandan politics away from ethnicity, to one based on delivery of public goods to the masses -- and that is already happening.
However, here he betrays some naivete, because he has not factored in fully the fact that the forces within the RPF -- and outside it -- who are losing out in the new dispensation, will fight back.
But perhaps most risky is the fact that Kagame and his allies think that the good works they have done are self-evident.
They seem to believe that man can live on bread alone, so give him bread and your job is done.
That the world should be forever thankful that the RPF stopped the genocide. That the world shares their view of the "enemy."
Because of this, if there is one thing that has degenerated in Rwanda, it is the ability of the once information-savvy RPF to explain itself.
Thus when there was a botched attempt to kill Kayumba in South Africa, Kigali was slow to react.
By the time it did, professing its innocence, its critics were already all over the BBC, Al Jazeera, and the news wires pinning the shooting on Kigali -- and even Kagame specifically.
Kigali was at first indifferent and scornful of the charges, then seemed dazed by how much stick it was getting.
The reality is that the view of the RPF as a hammer-and-tongs regime is held by many people.
Having the best flower gardens and public lawns of any African city can only go so far to change this image.
Rwanda today is like the schoolgirl who turns up at the prom with the most beautiful dress, but then has to endure the fact that she is not much liked by the boys at the party.
Kagame has the ability to change that, and how the August elections are conducted, and how much his government is willing to endure even the most obnoxious of critics in future, will be a large part of it. Will he?