‘This Army of ours will be the pillar of change… If you are saying that you are fighting tribalism, racism, but in the end your action show tribalism, then there is no difference between you and those you are waging war against. Or if you say that those you are fighting are thieves, if you are a thief too, then what is the difference? Huh?
He proceeds, ‘this army of ours will be the pillar for social transformation. Do you all understand the meaning of social transformation?’
- Yes Afande!
This was the message of 32-year-old rebel leader Paul Kagame on 28th December 1993 to his troops, the military wing of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). While he made that speech, the legitimate Government of the time was preparing a genocide.
Having fled anti-Tutsi pogroms on his mother’s back thirty years earlier to Uganda, where he would join the army and help Museveni accede to power, he was returning at the helm of a rebel movement formed by all Rwandans in exile, which, four years later would defeat the government and stop the genocide against the Tutsi that took the lives of more than a million people.
Paul Kagame will be overwhelmingly reelected for a third term as president of Rwanda, after the constitution was changed to allow him to stay on. Many observers will see in his reelection a typical African pattern, where leaders do not willingly relinquish power. Their best answer is found in the speech he made while accepting his party’s nomination. He came back on the events that led to this moment: ‘this is not what we had agreed, this is not how it was initially planned; you have changed it. I should have been here passing on the mantle to a successor; you have changed the object of this day; I had nothing to do with it. Since you have decided it to be so, I can only accept. However, here is the deal: I want you to promise me that we will work differently, or better, or harder, so that the seven years coming give us some kind of transition, and what made you ask me to stay longer can be addressed. We have been giving ourselves time, to reduce the worries and needs that lead us to a situation like this…’
That’s for the analysts, for a survivor of the genocide and a genocide perpetrator who now live side by side on Rwandan hills, or anyone who saw Rwanda in the aftermath of the genocide and predicted another failed African state, Kagame has generally been able to translate his vision for unity and social transformation into a reality.
Over the years Kagame has come to be seen as the symbol of stability, peace and progress. Indeed from the trauma of genocide, people have evolved at different paces. Perhaps the incident which best illustrates that is when he went to campaign in the Norther Province, a region that suffered most from war, and the people intoned a song, in their regional accent: Nda Ndambara Yantera Ubwoba. ‘If I have Kagame I shall not fear war…’
Kagame’s popularity is undeniable, if this campaign has taken celebratory proportions, drawing hundreds of thousands of supporters, it is for a simple reason: The president is not peaching, he is not campaigning in the political sense of the term; Rwandans are just showing gratitude because he has accepted to stay with them in response to four million petitions. Whether the petitions were spontaneous or mobilized, they have at least the merit of giving popular legitimacy to the electoral process.
Other African leaders too are increasingly finding inspiration in Kagames’ leadership style. Many of them bring their delegations to Rwanda to learn from our development models and Rwanda soldiers currently ensure the security of the Central African Republic’s president, trained those of the DRC president and are keeping peace in over seven countries on two continents. Last year Kagame was appointed by his peers to reform the African Union and was subsequently elected to the chairmanship of the continental body for next year.
Advocates of democratic transition certainly mean well and their plea has merit. But in the aftermath of the genocide, they were offering a vision that was not in the immediate priorities of the Rwandan people. As expressed in that speech, there is no doubt as to whether such transition will happen or should happen. The question is when it should happen and how. For now though, Kagame is what Rwandans need to lead that change, and to quote our regional library of hilarious African parables, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, ‘you can’t organize a big party when the floor is freshly cemented’
Open democracy in Rwanda is not where it is supposed to be. The restrictions imposed on ethnic profiling in Rwanda are based on genuine and relatively recent historical facts. This indeed poses certain limits for the media and political space. In Germany for instance, there are strong laws against Holocaust denial, revisionism, racism and discrimination in general. These laws are stronger or weaker in different countries, depending on their peculiar history.
Ngarambe Francois of the ruling RPF greeting MP Donatille Mukabalisa of the Liberal Party, Speaker of the Rwandan Parliament, Chamber of Deputies. Women occupy 64% of seats in the Rwandan Parliament
In order to recreate a nation we chose a model based on consensus and dialogue. The two principles were entrenched in the Rwandan Constitution, which was promulgated in a referendum in 2003. And with that we have multiplied dialogue forums; Annual Leadership Retreat, Annual National Dialogue with the population, Unity Club for all leaders and their spouses, Forum of Political Organizations bringing together all registered political parties, annual Rwanda Day in the west to meet the Diaspora, etc.
This is what we Rwandans have spent the last 23 years doing; trying to set up a country from scratch, recreating that national fabric which was torn by the genocide; Political parties are indeed a subsidiary issue in Rwanda; yet what preoccupies Rwandans at the moment is clearly inconsistent with what is being demanded of them by 200 year old, stable democracies.
Perhaps at some point that model of consensus will be outdated, based on the evolution of the society and the readiness for open and contradictory politics. I think we can be trusted to find the right time and the right approach to make that transition; until then, all we ask of the world, is to wish us well in our nation-building endeavors.
The wounds of genocide are healing, over time the country has opened up and that trend will continue; at its own pace, but to a peculiar situation Rwandans have chosen a peculiar path. As last year’s referendum has shown he majority of Rwandans clearly still need Kagame. Some lost their entire families, they were being hunted day and night, denigrated and ostracized. Others traveled on foot through Congo’s equatorial forests for years because they were told that if they returned to Rwanda they would be killed. Today both live in peace, in Rwanda, and they are convinced all that is thanks to Paul Kagame; Democracy can wait
This Article was published in German, for the German Newspaper ‘Der Freitag’. Link: https://www.freitag.de/autoren/the-guardian/kein-afrikanisches-muster