Commentary / Japan

Lessons in conflict resolution from Africa

by Shihoko Goto

Africa will be on the minds of many in August as Japan hosts the seventh annual Tokyo International Conference on African Development. The two-day forum to be held in Yokohama at the end of the month will be an opportunity to discuss not only development assistance to Africa but also partnerships between international organizations, nonprofits and governments to encourage more investments to the continent. One of the biggest issues, though, will not be about international cooperation but rather increasing competition with China that goes far beyond seeking natural resources.

Still, as TICAD expands and deepens Japan’s interests in Africa, the conference should also highlight what lessons African countries can offer to industrialized countries when it comes to overcoming comparative disadvantages and demonstrating the power of leadership.

Rwanda would without doubt be high on the list of nations that can offer much food for thought when it comes to economic policy. Since the genocide of 1994 when over 1 million people were slaughtered in 100 days, the country has succeeded in becoming one of Africa’s most stable and prosperous nations, and less dependant on foreign aid each year.

Granted, critics of Paul Kagame, who has been in power since 2000, would be quick to point out that such stability comes with a heavy price in free speech and democracy. To be sure, the fact that the head of the Rwandan Patriotic Front won nearly 99 percent of total votes in the 2017 presidential elections seems hardly the result of a transparent electoral process. Yet the fact remains that Rwanda is now focused on improving its investment environment to attract private sector capital further, including nearly nationwide access to the internet, and a zero-tolerance stance on corruption.

The capital city of Kigali certainly provides a welcoming environment to Japanese corporate interests. While there are only a handful of small enterprises from Japan in Rwanda, the number of executives from larger companies to see whether there are opportunities to base their African operations in the country have increased by more than fivefold over the past two years, according to one Japanese official.

What Rwanda can offer the world isn’t just more business opportunities and an entrepreneurial foothold in the continent, though. The country’s ability to overcome the legacy of violent conflict between the Hutus and the Tutsis and keep ongoing tensions between the two sides manageable is a remarkable achievement in itself. It resonates particularly at a time when identity politics is leading to greater division between and among countries at all levels of economic development. It would be foolhardy to imagine that animosity and downright hatred between the two ethnic groups has abated after only 25 years. Instead, a common goal of ensuring stability and steady growth is the glue that keeps the small land-locked country together even as neighboring countries continue to struggle to achieve some of the successes Rwanda has been able to achieve.

It’s an achievement that Tokyo can admire, especially as Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore in particular have been role models for the Kagame government’s pursuit of growth that also looks to a more balanced distribution of wealth. At the same time, the African nation has much to teach the world in its success of proactively keeping the history of genocide deeply ingrained in the memories of survivors as well as the younger generation, while ensuring that the former warring sides remain respectful of one another.

Dealing with the legacy of war remains one of the biggest challenges of East Asia. Rather than abating with time, historical memory continues to be a political force that has overshadowed the power of common interests to unite. The need for Tokyo and Seoul to have closer economic as well as security relations may be apparent, but it is also clear that the regional dynamic where the two countries find themselves have shifted greatly over the past few years in particular. Economic interests too have become barriers for greater cooperation.

With no clear pathway for Japan and South Korea to resolve the export restriction and wartime compensation dispute, it’s clear that new approaches to conflict resolution and some outside-of-the-box thinking is needed. TICAD may well be that forum to bring countries far beyond Africa to discuss the challenges of resolving long-standing tensions and how to ensure sustained civil relations.

Shihoko Goto is deputy director for Geoeconomics and senior Northeast Asia associate at the Wilson Center’s Asia Program.