“The perception has changed dramatically. All of a sudden it is becoming cool to have a young leadership”

Rwanda’s permanent secretary to the Ministry of Finance and Economic Planning, and secretary to the Treasury, cuts an unexpected figure. Just 33 years old and female, Kampeta Sayinzoga is far from the normal demographic for someone in her job.

“I’m in a position that normally should be for a 65 year old man, and I’m a 33 year old woman,” she tells This is Africa, seated on couches in her plain office in downtown Kigali, Rwanda’s capital. “It sends a signal to the youth, that if you work hard and develop your skills, there’s absolutely no reason why – at 27, even – you shouldn’t be in this seat.”

A masters in economic development from Nottingham University, a stint with the World Bank and time as the ministry’s chief economist and director of macro policy, as well as exposure to a variety of political systems in Belgium, South Africa and the UK, all make Ms Sayinzoga an example par excellence of a young, cosmopolitan generation of policy makers making their way into African governments.

Since her appointment in 2009, she has worked on headline-grabbing initiatives, leading technical teams for the country’s maiden international bond issuance and its first, heavily oversubscribed initial public offering, in which the government floated a 25 percent stake in Rwanda’s only brewery, Bralirwa, on the national stock exchange. “The government was selling its shares so most decisions took place in Minecofin [the Ministry of Finance and Economic Planning],” explains Ms Sayinzoga.

She describes the successful launch of a $400m eurobond in April this year as her proudest moment at the ministry: “It epitomises all the hard work Rwandans do on a daily basis – it was a seal of approval from the business community.”

Ms Sayinzoga brings to the job an impatience with accepted practices – she describes herself as “a bit of a bulldozer in a bureaucracy”– while colleagues speak of her ferocious work ethic. But she’s also, quite possibly, just more efficient than her elders. “What would probably take my dad [Jean Sayinzoga, chairman of the Rwanda Demobilisation and Reintegration Commission] four meetings, will take me one Blackberry instant message,” she jokes.

She is not alone in Rwanda, which has a government that is both unusually young, and dominated by women. Notable figures alongside Ms Sayinzoga include Ines Mpambara, the former director of the National University of Rwanda’s journalism school and current director of the cabinet office of the president; Yolande Makolo, communications director for the presidency; and Clare Akamanzi, acting CEO of the Rwanda Development Board. Each is challenging burdensome bureaucracies and bringing corporate practice to government.

“Because we are so free with each other as young people, we are capable of telling each other the truth,” says Ms Sayinzoga. If a colleague disagrees with the permanent secretary’s idea or proposal, “she’ll probably just reply to my BBM (Blackberry instant messenger) and say: ‘This is a stupid idea, why would you think that, let’s shelve it’. There’s no reason to be defensive. If I’m 33 and make a mistake, I did it in good faith, maybe I didn’t look at the bigger picture. I won’t take it personally that I made a mistake and then try to cover up my mistake,” she adds.

“Public policy is a bit of a messy process, it’s never scientific. Sometimes you get it right, sometimes you get it wrong. And I think at our age it’s easy to say: ‘Well I tried, tough luck’, and you move on. But I think with older generations, sometimes the ego thing creeps in.”

But while Ms Sayinzoga differentiates herself from older officials, including her own father, she is also aware of the shortcomings of young leadership. “It’s a risk to bring in young leaders like me, we may have the energy and the passion but we also sometimes do not have the experience to step back and understand politics,” she says, before adding that she doesn’t have any political ambition. “My ambition is not to become an MP or a minister. I just want to contribute where I am and then move on.”

Ms Sayinzoga says her priorities are to create meritocratic and sustainable institutions, and to communicate to the population what the government intends to do for them. “You need to have a bureaucracy that does not have a clientelist, patronage system. You need to have systems of appeals that are working,” she argues.

Plugging into governance

One area of focus for the permanent secretary is ICT, which is not only an economic enabler but can also strengthen popular engagement with government.

“We are trying to create an accountability model where the citizens hold you directly accountable, not your political party,” Ms Sayinzoga says. “That is why we want by 2017 the entire population [to] have broadband, because you can’t stifle citizen accountability if everybody has Twitter… I mean there is nothing you can do about it. If somebody is unhappy they will tweet, they will make it public,” she argues.

Whether the authorities will tolerate direct political opposition is another question. This is still a country with sensitivities about criticism of government and dissenting voices regularly cite the arrest of political opponents.

Ms Sayinzoga refers often to “patriotism” as a driver behind both her work and Rwanda’s post-genocide success, and describes development as a question of national security. “As long as people are happy and busy, are getting wealthier,” that’s what counts, she says: “You don’t think of killing your neighbour when you’re making money.”

For Ms Sayinzoga, a teenager at the time of the 1994 genocide, the question is how the next generation – her two young children’s generation – will sustain the urgency she feels.

“What brought Rwanda where it is today is that passion, that feeling that you can make a difference, you can see the product of what you do,” she says, describing how many of the country’s current leadership returned from the diaspora and wanted to build a home reflective of their ambitions.

“The bait for us was patriotism – the need to change the reputation of our nation, from genocide to success story,” she says. “My child will not have that need because he will inherit a nation that is known to be a success story. So the question is, what will drive him to push this country to the next level?”

While the president is known for encouraging youth achievement, he is also understood to have a tight inner circle – Ms Sayinzoga is married to his nephew. But she says that it is vital that people “believe in hard work” as leading to success. “They need to see the results, they need to see that so-and-so is working hard, look at where he is,” she says. “They need to look for a job and have the job because they are the best at something, not because they are my cousin, they are my uncle.”

Ms Sayinzoga feels that Rwanda is setting the tone for other African countries, where initial scepticism at women in power and the promotion of young leaders has increasingly shifted to excitement.

“I think the perception has changed dramatically. All of a sudden it is becoming cool to have a young leadership,” she says. “It is like, oh, you can reach these results, while having all these young women in powerful positions.”

For Ms Sayinzoga, the more balanced representation of men and women in government provides complementarity. “I think generally women are a little more risk averse in decision-making and we tend to be quite detailed,” she says. “Men – and I don’t like the generalisation – tend to be a little bit more big picture and more risk prone, and in development you need both.”

Fresh from its recent international bond issuance – in which, by Ms Sayinzoga’s account, both she and her male superior played complementary roles and closed an order book of over $3.5bn – Rwanda’s current government will continue to prioritise the country’s economic development.

Commitment to economic growth and high standards of public integrity, much more than multiparty democracy, are the hallmarks of Rwanda’s strategy. But Ms Sayinzoga and her peers may have a rare opportunity to remake the country’s political culture at the same time, and she is keen to leave that legacy. “When I can almost become irrelevant, when an institution can almost work on autopilot, then you have mature institutions,” she says.

This article is based on research and interviews carried out by This is Africa, a publication from the Financial Times, for its November project Africa’s Reformers, supported by the Tony Blair Africa Governance Initiative.