The Political Magic of Roads

Is real democracy possible without highways?

Visions of America/UIG via Getty Images
Visions of America/UIG via Getty Images

A friend was asking me about my recent trip to Rwanda. What, he wanted to know, surprised me the most?

"I think it was the roads," I said. "The roads were amazing."

"I'll bet," he said. "They must have been a mess, right?"

A friend was asking me about my recent trip to Rwanda. What, he wanted to know, surprised me the most?

"I think it was the roads," I said. "The roads were amazing."

"I’ll bet," he said. "They must have been a mess, right?"

No, actually, just the opposite. I explained that the streets in Kigali, the capital, are smoothly surfaced, with nary a pothole in sight. Well-crafted rain gutters and zebra-striped curbs mark the edges of each roadway. Blinking warning lights are embedded in the road surface at corners. Traffic lights don’t just show green for go and red for stop; they’re also equipped with digital clocks, showing how long until each light changes color. The wealthy suburb of Washington, D.C., that I call home would be happy to have such roads.

Nor is this a privilege of Rwanda’s capital. When we set out on a trip to the city of Goma, just over Rwanda’s border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the highway that took us there was just as impressive. I barely noticed a bump in three hours. My subsequent travels around the country confirmed that this was no fluke. Rwanda is a nation of remarkable roads.

This discovery struck me with particular force because of one of my other recent trips to Africa. In December I visited Mali, the West African country that nearly fell apart two years ago when Tuareg separatists in the north, aided by jihadi allies, decided to break away. The drive from Mopti, in central Mali, to the northern city of Timbuktu covers just 250 miles — but this rather modest journey took us nine bone-shattering hours (not counting stops).

It’s a roller-coaster dirt track that rarely permits speeds higher than 40 miles per hour. In order to avoid the worst we often swung off the "highway" onto barely visible trails through the bush that paralleled it. By the time we arrived in Timbuktu, I found myself sympathizing with the separatists: Why should northerners feel any loyalty to their compatriots in Bamako, the capital in the south, if the government can’t even be troubled to connect the two parts of the country with a proper road?

The comparison is compelling. Mali is a democracy that boasts free elections and a pluralistic press but is also plagued by miserable governance and entrenched corruption that continue to hamper development. Rwanda is an autocracy that tolerates little dissent but has a remarkable record of delivering public services to its citizens (including infrastructure). Both countries have traumatic histories of poverty and ethnic division. But while Mali continues to struggle, Rwanda is on the move.

That good roads have a positive economic effect seems like a no-brainer. But my travels have made me inclined to think that we tend to underestimate the political effects of transport infrastructure. In Rwanda, decent roads stand for the official commitment to provide everyone with equal access to the fruits of development — concrete evidence, if you will, of the determination to overcome the ethnic divides that led the country into mass slaughter just two decades ago. Every part of the country is relatively close to a good road; no group is excluded. (Nor do you have to have a car to get around; members of Rwanda’s growing middle class can simply hop on one of the country’s ubiquitous minibuses.) Northern Malians can only dream of such conditions.

Roads don’t just enable the movements of goods; they also enable the flow of ideas. Christianity in its present form probably wouldn’t exist today if it weren’t for the extraordinary Roman road network that enabled the Apostle Paul to transmit his teachings across the empire. The establishment of the U.S. interstate highway system in the 1950s completed the work of national unification that started with the construction of transcontinental railroads in the 19th century (and pushed the country into the modern era of indistinguishable suburbia and big-box stores).

As such, roads are also crucial ingredients of state-building. Soon after toppling the Taliban in 2001, the U.S.-led coalition that occupied Afghanistan set out to rebuild Highway 1, the ring road linking Kabul with the country’s major urban centers (including Kandahar, the Taliban’s unofficial capital). The idea was to restore a sense of unity to a country that had virtually fallen apart during the long years of civil war. Taliban insurgents immediately vowed to sabotage the project for just the same reason. Today, the dismal story of Highway 1, which is falling apart after $4 billion of Western investment, offers a perfect microcosm of Afghanistan’s roller-coaster struggle to reinvent itself. Afghanistan isn’t unusual in this respect. Take a look at many failed states around the world and you’ll probably be struck by how many of them have bad (or no) roads.

Of course, there’s a big chicken-or-the-egg question here: A country’s governing class probably won’t be capable of building proper roads unless it’s fairly competent to begin with. That’s certainly the case with the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) of President Paul Kagame, an ascetic former guerilla leader whose obsessive-compulsive-disorder approach to rule has even prompted him to ban plastic bags.

The Tutsi-dominated RPF, whose members spent decades in exile in countries adjacent to their homeland, took power after the collapse of the Hutu Power government that implemented the mass slaughter of mostly Tutsi Rwandans in 1994, and the memory of that trauma gives an extraordinary urgency to the government’s efforts to shape a national identity that transcends old divides. (And building roads does play a part in that larger program. The authorities often send Rwandans to work on local roads as part of government-sponsored job creation schemes or compulsory "community service" programs.)

Despite what some of its defenders say, Rwanda is no democracy; it’s a tightly organized one-party state. (Incidentally, it’s a company from Singapore, the one-party state that Kagame most often cites as his model, that designed the urban plan for Rwanda’s capital, including its remarkable streets.) Even so, if you had to ask me whether Mali or Rwanda is more likely to achieve a prosperous, fully functioning democracy one day in the future, I’d probably have to pick the latter. Can you really have a democracy when one half of the country doesn’t feel like it is part of the rest? Can you have a democracy without citizens who are connected on the most elementary physical level?

The Internet and the increasing sophistication of virtual worlds may one day change this equation. But don’t hold your breath. For now, tarmac is the test.

 Twitter: @ccaryl

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