Rebranding Rwanda

May 1, 2012          

Raynard Jackson

When the average American thinks of Rwanda, there are two thoughts that come to mind—genocide and gorillas.

During the early 1990s, Rwanda killed almost 1 million of its own people in a brazen display of ethnic cleansing.  As with the Jewish Holocaust, the world stood idly by and pretended that they saw nothing! 

Rwanda is also known to contain an estimated 1/3 of the world’s mountain gorillas.

This is the extent of the knowledge most Americans have about Rwanda.  Americans are partly to blame for this lack of knowledge, but I put the biggest blame on the country of Rwanda itself.

Rwanda has a very appealing story to tell, but like most African countries, they display little understanding of the importance of engaging in direct dialogue with the American people.  Better to have friends and not need them, than to need friends and not have them.

Rwanda has made tremendous progress on several fronts since the genocide of 1994.  Transparency International, an anti-corruption watchdog group, has listed Rwanda as one of the least corrupt countries in Africa, they are connected to the underwater fiber optic cable off the coast of Kenya that enables them to have faster, more reliable internet connectivity, and they have been cited as one of the top 10 African countries to invest in. 

Last December, U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk and Rwandan Minister of Trade and Industry, Francois Kanimba ratified the U.S.-Rwanda Bilateral Investment Treaty (BIT).  The U.S.-Rwanda BIT was signed in Kigali in 2008 and the United States Senate unanimously approved the treaty on September 26, 2011. The treaty provides investors with legal protections that underscore the two countries’ shared commitment to open investment and trade policies. These protections include non-discriminatory treatment of investors and investments; the right to freely transfer investment-related funds; prompt, adequate, and effective compensation in the event of an expropriation; freedom from specified performance requirements, such as domestic content or technology transfer requirements; and provisions to ensure transparency in governance. The treaty also gives investors in all sectors the right to bring investment disputes to neutral, international arbitration panels. USTR and the Department of State co-led the negotiation of this treaty.

The critics of Rwanda continue to site the human rights abuses by the Rwandan President, Paul Kagame (as reported by Amnesty International).  The country is also criticized for its lack of a free press and the jailing or murder of those who speak out against Kagame.  Most Western diplomats in the region are well aware of Kagame’s alleged role in fostering conflict in and stealing minerals from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Most Americans don’t follow Rwanda enough to discern the truth about Rwanda.  That’s why I am puzzled that neither Kagame or his government ever interacts with the media when in the U.S., especially the Black media.

Africans constantly complain about the way Africa is portrayed in the U.S. media (war, famine, corruption), but yet they do nothing to change that portrayal.  They constantly call us “brother,” then they go to CNN.  They tell us to “come home” (meaning come to visit Africa), but they go visit the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Corporate Council on Africa, or the Council on Foreign Relations (all mostly white organizations).

Can you remember the last time an African president has given a speech at a Black university, met with Black businessmen, or met with Black media?

You can substitute any other African country for Rwanda and the storyline would be the same.  Rwanda and Kagame have a worthwhile story to tell, so I am dumbfounded that they don’t take advantage of the interest Americans have in beginning a dialogue with Rwanda.

Can you imagine Michael Jordan hitting the game winning shot and then asking the media not to say anything? Or Barak Obama winning the presidential election and refusing to talk about his victory? Or you discovering the cure for cancer, but not wanting anyone to know?

So, my challenge to Kagame and Rwanda is to begin a dialogue with the American people beyond that of the white power structure.  There are over 200 Black owned newspapers in the U.S. who would be thrilled to have an on-the-record conversation with Kagame.  There are hundreds of Black owned businesses from every sector who can be a great vehicle for the sharing of ideas, but also possible investors.

If  the Rwandan brand wants to move beyond the genocide and gorillas, then they must educate the American people about the progress made in their country; and the only way to do that is to begin a dialogue with the various centers of influence (COI) within the U.S.—Black media, businessmen, universities, etc.

Currently, Rwanda is viewed very negatively within the U.S. and that will be difficult to change until Kagame and his whole government decides to engage the American people.  That must begin with Kagame reaching out well beyond white America that he is so accustomed to engaging with.

Kagame must set the tone, then his ministers, and finally those in the embassy here in the U.S.  This type of initiative will not only help with Rwanda’s political agenda, but also create more possibilities for increased investment in the country.

In marketing terms, Rwanda is a damaged brand.  The only way to improve Rwanda’s brand is by initiating a strategic, well thought out dialogue with the American people. 

Kagame has never explained to the American people why we should care about Rwanda, what Rwanda has to offer America, or why Rwanda is in America’s vital national security interests.  Two fundamentals in any educational campaign are: to build market awareness and then give a call to action.

Kagame has a real opportunity to show other African leaders how to engage the American people in a way that leads to more investment in and understanding of  his country.  An educated America is his best ally.  Maybe it’s time for Rwanda to rebrand it’s approach to the American people.

Raynard Jackson is president & CEO of Raynard Jackson & Associates, LLC., a D.C.-public relations/government affairs firm.  He is also a contributing editor for Black Enterprise,  ExcellStyle Magazine (, Freedom’s Journal Magazine (, and U.S. Africa Magazine (

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