Rwanda, UK firm partners on education, trade, environment

Tuesday March 29 2022
High commissioner

British High Commissioner to Rwanda, Omar Daair at his residence in Kigali. PHOTO | ANGE ILIZA

By Ange Iliza

The British High Commissioner to Rwanda spoke to Berna Namata and Ange Iliza on his priorities, aid and the relations between the two countries

What are your priorities as British High Commissioner to Rwanda?

Mine are in two main groups, one is the bilateral part of the relationship between the UK and Rwanda and the other is how the UK and Rwanda work together on global issues.

On the bilateral side, we have a strong partnership, particularly in education. It will remain a priority for us because the UK government, in general, is focused on particular goals in education.

There is a lot of scope to do in green growth. We have partnered very well in agriculture in the past. The Minister of Agriculture and I discussed some of the projects we supported, and we now look at how these graduate to the next phase. A lot of work will be around the climate-sensitive elements of agriculture.

We also relate well in strengthening some public institutions here. Our relationship with Rwanda is unique as it doesn’t just involve the foreign development office but also other domains of the UK government. 


Trade is the third area I would like to see more focus. We have low volumes currently, mostly in traditional commodities. The Minister for Agriculture told me the UK is the biggest importer of Rwandan tea. Also British businesses are invested here in electric vehicles and solar technology.

The final area is in development of the civil society and ensuring they are a base for different voices and the contribution of different organisation.

On global issues, the government of Rwanda is very ambitious in its role in international events and issues. Soon, we will have Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) but we are working closely with the government even beyond CHOGM considering Rwanda played a big role at COP26.

Rwanda is a regional leader on environmental issues and we want to work closely to encourage other countries to do more in this area and when it comes to things like tackling pandemic. The Minister of Health was recently in the UK for a summit about the Next Global Pandemic, about future preparedness.

Rwanda may be a small country but one with really big ideas and ambition. There is also the element about regional security where Rwanda is impressive in places like Mozambique and peacekeeping in Sudan. That is another area where we want to partner to promote greater peace and security in the region.

The relationship between the UK and Rwanda appears to have been strained after the UK government placed Rwanda on the red list, and more recently the delayed acceptance of the credentials of Rwanda’s new ambassador. Would you describe the state of relations at the moment?

Very good. There are issues we disagree on and some we may not see eye to eye on but I would be surprised if there was anywhere that we completely agree.

The red list was a global response and never particularly about Rwanda. It was a difficult and unprecedented time, and each country took decisions revolved around the health of its populace.

Last year when Omicron came up we saw Rwanda ban flights from some southern Africa states. Despite disrupting for businesses on both sides, it was purely on public health grounds.

On Rwanda’s incoming high commissioner to the UK, some processes take time and different countries take different lengths of time to deal with these. Ultimately, agreement has been granted and we look forward to having the high commissioner arrive in the UK.

In relation to the above, since Mr Johnston Busingye’s appointment on August 31, activists in the UK and the US have pushed the UK government to reject his credentials. They want him placed on the list of people sanctioned under the Magnitsky Sanctions programme that targets individuals responsible for human rights violations or corruption. Is there any relationship between the delay and the allegations?

I won’t go into the process of the delay because it is a long and complicated one that the government and the palace have to consider and it differs for every individual. They look at the totality of the picture of our relations and individual connections to the UK and applies to any person who gets appointed.

According to the report of the Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) issued in July 2021, the UK and Northern Ireland expressed concern about restrictions to media freedom, civil and political rights and urged Rwanda to become a model of Commonwealth values. To what extent are these issues being addressed?

My government feels that freedom of the media and freedom of speech are a strong part of developing a strong community and country. Public debate helps rather than hinders progress and development. I think what we were saying at the UPR is that there is more that the government can do to support progress, in particular on access to information and freedom of expression.

We support some civil society organisations to focus on this, for example with the Thomson Foundation, to improve implementation of the access to information law. Legislation already exists and just needs implementing. Because journalists need to hold the government and all of us to account, they need to get access to this information. 

What is the UK government doing to support Rwanda move towards a more open political culture?

Political structures in any country are for the people, so, it would be for Rwandans to decide what structures and government they want. We only try to partly strengthen such organisations in terms of capacity to hold governments to account and help governments to ensure their institutions are able to deliver to the people’s needs.

As we get closer to the CHOGM, it is a good opportunity to discuss the values Commonwealth members share, namely; democracy, peace, and promoting prosperity and stability across the club.

Indeed, Rwanda will be taking over chairmanship of the Commonwealth human rights body. Our human rights organisation, which chaired it for the past four years will be here next week to hand over the reins. The Rwandan government is trying to make the country a more prosperous place for its citizens. And we think that a more open society contributes to such prosperity, thereby attracting business, tourists and more.

Critics feel aid should be conditional to press the government to address issues concerning human rights and political space. What is your position on this?

Aid and development support is about the need, and it goes to countries whose population has need. Rwanda has made a lot of progress these past 20 years that is impressive in many ways. But it remains in the lower income bracket compared with many others and needs support to move to middle-income status. Such support needs to be channelled to meet the population’s needs. Aid is not a political tool given with conditionalities. It is a partnership to support the poor and most vulnerable in society. It must be used in ways that help a country to develop in a direction that promotes a people’s wellbeing. 

CHOGM is finally happening in June 2022. How would you assess the level of preparedness to host the meeting?

CHOGM Kigali will be a wholly in-person event. The COP26 in Glasgow was no different. Even though it involved large numbers of people, we did it almost wholly in-person. With the right sort of testing and adherence to Covid infection control arrangements, of which I have a lot of confidence in the Rwanda government that it can be done in-person. 

I have confidence in the Rwandan government’s level of preparedness for this and focused on delivering a successful event.

I can’t speculate on other countries’ attendance but I can confirm the UK’s Prince Charles and his wife Camilla, as well as a delegation led by prime minister Boris Johnson, ministers and of course the business component. I expect from other countries that the attendance will also be good.

For example, our office of national statistics has a specialist working in NISR here supporting them on data science and how to use data for government. We also have somebody from our revenue and Customs ministry in the UK working with RRA here....

For instance, with the education programme, starting with primary school children.

A more educated population as a way of promoting this development. Similarly, if you could work to support jobs and economic growth generally a bigger middle class means bigger support for openness and inclusion for those kinds of things. I think that there is a connection between the development and what we would like to see in Rwanda and everywhere that we work on development issues. But I don’t see it as a tool to use to force the government to do something and I don’t think the government would respond to that well.