From Gisenyi to Goma to Genocide
Wednesday, June 20, 2012
Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson

In Why Nations Fail we use the large differences in income borders as a way of showing dramatically how changes in institutions can lead to large differences in prosperity. This is true of the difference between North and South Korea, and between the old Bantustan of the Transkei and Kwa-Zulu Natal in South Africa.

One of the most dramatic borders in Africa is at the north of Lake Kivu when you cross from Gisenyi in Rwanda into Goma in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The Rwandan side is very orderly. The streets are clean even if not all tarmacked. The drivers of motor cycle taxis, known as boda bodas, wear a helmet and carry spare ones for their passengers. Drivers drive beneath the speed limit and policemen do not ask for bribes. There is electricity and running water. From Gisenyi you can see Goma on the shore just around the lake. But Goma is like a different planet. As the next picture shows, seen from Google Earth the chaos on the DRC side of the border is readily evident. To get into Goma you have to pay “du sucree” the Congolese phrase for a bribe and you have to pay more to get out. The town has a faded grandeur, but electricity, water and basic services are erratic to non-existent.


Why is Gisenyi so different from Goma? Both were part of Belgian colonies. If anything you might have expected Rwanda to be much poorer and less functional. After all they don’t have the mineral wealth and Congo does. And wasn’t there a huge genocide in 1994 in which maybe 800,000 people perished? Why do things seem to work so much better in Rwanda?

The explanation for these differences lies not in the last 50 years when both countries were independent. Neither does it lie in the colonial period. The roots are much deeper. The key fact is that around 1700 a powerful centralized state appeared in Rwanda while such a state never formed to the west of Lake Kivu in the Eastern Congo.

The state, the seminal study of which is Jan Vansina’s Antecedents to Modern Rwanda, mythically emerged on Gasabo Hill northeast of the modern day capital of Kigali. By the 19th century it had spread to most of modern Rwanda, making Rwanda one of the few modern African countries whose borders correspond closely to a pre-colonial polity. The Rwandan state was highly militarized and run by a king and a cattle owning elite which became associated with the so-called Tutsis. Historically the king had constantly moved their capital but in the 1890s he settled at Nyanza where parts of the traditional palace have been restored. You can also visit the king’s heard of cattle (if you want to see how the court was in the late 1940s it, and much of the aristocracy, they featured in the Hollywood classic King Solomon’s Mines, or the 1985 remake).

The historical Rwandan state was not a “developmental state”. It was highly militarized and in the 1870s succeeded in turning most of the rural population of farmers into serfs who had to pay heavy dues and do free labor services for their chiefs for half of the week. It was this act which helped to institutionalize the differences between Tutsis and Hutus, the latter bearing the brunt of this new set of economic institutions. But developmental or not the state brought order and rules and heavily influenced the behavior of people in Rwanda. Most striking is the impact this had on the genocide in 1994. As pointed out in every treatment (e.g., the Human Rights Watch’s study led by Alison Des Forges Leave None to Tell the Story), this was planned and executed from above. Order came down to kill. As Joseph Sebarenzi puts it (referring to pre-1994 massacres) in his memoir God Sleeps in Rwanda:

These rounds of massacres used to be called muyanga, meaning wind .. It would come suddenly and forcefully and then, just as suddenly as it came, it would stop… [which] demonstrated Rwandans’ strong obedience to authority. Rwandans kill when they are asked, and stop as soon as they are told.

As we have argued in Why Nations Fail, political centralization is key not only for the development of inclusive institutions but for even the most basic form of growth under extractive institutions, and the orderliness and the economic revival in Rwanda since 1994 are both due to this type of growth under extractive institutions.

But Rwanda also illustrates that political centralization can also have perverse consequences, particularly when the state turns genocidal. And that of course is not unique to Africa. Just think of the Nazi state.

Article originally appeared on Why Nations Fail by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson (
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