Founding principles v. Realpolitik: The struggle for nation-building

The eternal rivalry between realpolitik and supreme principles is known to all freedom fighters and seasoned politicians, all those who’ve been involved in struggles for revolution, and the more challenging struggle for stabilization and human emancipation.

Rwandan leaders aren’t exempt from that struggle, then, and now. Winning that war implies maintaining the balance between the two fundamentals: Realpolitik and supreme principles. There is sadly no manual, nor guidelines as to which side of the pendulum to swing at a given time, for many of the decisions are improvised in response to advents to which the revolutionaries had and continue to have little or no control over. As an elder recently told me, when we were founding the RPF, we couldn’t predict the Genocide. We were caught off-guard and had to re-adjust.

Which is why when history judges leaders, it is fair to factor in the context and epoch within which they called the shots, the pressures they faced and the knowledge that was in their possession at the time.

Principles are fundamental. They are the basis upon which resilient societies are founded. Ours are enshrined in the eight founding pillars of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), themselves drawn, I think, from Rwandan history, Pan-Africanism as advanced by Nkrumah, Lumumba, Macher, Sankara, etc.; – Mao-Marxist ideals as well as accumulated knowledge in exile.

While being established, principles are, by virtue, aspirational. Written by idealists, revolutionaries, from a place of pain and suffering. They stem from the yearn to do good, better. To transform an oppressive state into a fairer one.

The enemy of principle isn’t realpolitik, it is human beings. The human agency, greed, interests, flows, fears and ambitions are the biggest threat to principle. Managing those attributes, while preserving the principles – that’s what realpolitik is.

Idealists believe that good always triumphs over evil, that if one is animated by goodwill, they ultimately vanquish. The reality isn’t that romantic sadly. Success comes from better preparation, strategy and might; in other words, success comes from what one does; not what one thinks – even though one’s deeds are informed by what one thinks.

So, a sane mind in a sane body makes an effective politician.

While principles are enshrined in all revolutions, the journey to victory is marred with so much realpolitik. Once the victory of the war is accomplished, there is the long and laborious victory over the peace to pursue.

In such a globalized, complex and dynamic world, realpolitik hangs on to principles as obscurity hangs on to light. So much so that, after sometime, one may look back, and not recognize the person they used to be, a not so distant past ago.

Revolutionaries, leaders are then confronted with reality. In governing the land there are concessions to relinquish, deals to cut, compromises to make. There are people to be appointed, power and resources to share.

My father, who is a believer in unseen forces, calls it ‘inspiration’. He believes that decisions that leaders make in the heat of the moment, are inspired to them by God. My fear is the devil, at times, may be in the detail.

Revolutionaries are known to be in two categories; the romantics and the pragmatics. None of the categories is better than the other, just like principles and realpolitik are all vital for the preservation of a nation. Not least, the romantics tend to die young, and so do their projects for transforming the society. But we are thankful that their ideas persisted and lasted for all of us to benefit from them; like Che Guevarra told the soldier who had come to kill him, ‘I know you are here to kill me. Shoot, coward, you are only going to kill a man..’

Regardless of which leadership a nation is under, a golden thread of founding principles must remain, cutting through the nation’s life. One should be able to discern the founding principles of a nation from a single look.

The brightness shined by principles is a good measure of the nation’s soul. The more principles are faded by problems and their solutions, the further the nation disconnects from its Soul. It is difficult but possible to maintain the principles while facing scarcity. Just as for poor, aid recipient nations, homegrown principles are a luxury.

This piece isn’t only prose, or a philosophical assessment of nation building. Writing this I seek to highlight critical political decisions in our country, and try as dispassionately as possible, to confront them to our founding principles – with no prior judgments…

Independence of the Judiciary, Checks and Balances.

The constitution promulgated in 2003 attempted to harness all the eight founding pillars of the RPF. God willing I will study the others too. In this article I would like to evaluate one in particular: ‘The rule of law’. Which is made possible by the ‘Independence of the Judiciary’ and ‘Checks and Balances’.

To accomplish that, the previous constitution sought to establish:

  • One, non-renewable term of eight years for the Chief Justice and the Deputy Chief Justice;
  • One, non-renewable term of eight years for Senators.

The idea, in my opinion, was to have individuals with irreproachable track record, etc., at the twilight of their carriers, who did not anticipate further political duties, save, perhaps for good offices, academic or charitable actions.

Such individuals would not be influenced or coerced to compromise their conscience, for they did not seek approval from the leadership or the society; they would be truly independent; and thereby their institutions.

It so happened in our country, that members of both institutions, having served out their term, were routinely reappointed to other political positions, and indeed served well there too.

This, rather realpolitik action, was probably beneficial in other matters, however it undermined the very rationale of the one, non-renewable term, which was eventually removed in the just promulgated 2015 Constitution.

Indeed the terms were shortened to five years, renewable once. When I asked why, I was given a realpolitik answer: ‘This was done to make the term of Senators and the term of the Justices, consistent with the term of the President of the Republic; I was also told: ‘This was done to ensure that non performing holders of those positions are not reelected in office.’

Those two reasons have their merit in realpolitik. They are just not what the principle intended. People appointed, or elected in those positions should, in principle, have no competence nor legitimacy to prove.

Not least, Senators tenure that are slightly discrepant to presidential terms were established to ensure institutional continuity and the preservation and transmission of institutional memory. For a stronger national stability.

In any event, if discrepant Senatorial or Judiciary tenure revealed to be an issue that needed to be addressed. It shouldn’t have happened at the cost of the founding principles; the ones that must withstand the test of time and context: Independence of the Judiciary and the Legislature. With these changes, the difference between the Lower Chamber of Deputies and the Upper Chamber of Senators is no longer as clear.

I am alive to the fact that political balance needs to be maintained, that my binary assessment here isn’t be all end all; like Hamlet said to Horatio; ‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy’ – Shakespeare, Hamlet (1.5.167-8). I too am aware of the limits of my thoughts. I am also aware of the youth of our democracy, the scarcity of human resources and resources in general;

And it is not our education system, in its current form, which will change that. Indeed the difference between us, and the countries we hold as models; namely China, Ethiopia, Singapore, all registering double-digit growths annually, is that their schools produce smart people…

Yet, I thought this piece would be an interesting food for thoughts, if not for the pragmatic, at least for the romantics among us. Forgive me if it comes across as disruptive.

Yours faithfully.


One comment

  1. Well well, your piece could have had some semblance of objectivity if you addressed the presidential terms limit too, especially, the cynical transitional clause that awards the man himself a hassle-free-seven-year-ride to say the least. oops, hang on a minute… I get it. “thou shall not cross the line”

    We can not claim development and/or democracy at the cost of stiffening up intellectual consciousness and meaningful engagement.

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