Prof. Ngagi Alphonse: The extraordinary Rwandan spirit.

Last week, I was moved to learn the nomination of Ngagi Alphonse as a judge at the Rwandan Supreme Court.

Now for those who don’t know him, Ngagi is one of the best lawyers that we have in this country. He served as Dean of the faculty of Law at the National University of Rwanda, then Rector of the Universite Libre de Kigali.

But that description doesn’t really do him justice. Those are just titles, they do not speak to the character of the man. This post is about the character of an individual and its reflection to an entire nation.

Ngagi is a Seventh’ Day Adventist who does not work on Saturdays. All jurists in this country know that. Why? Because his reputation dates back to his university days, at the University of Lovanium in Kinshasa, where he took eight years to finish a five-year law degree.

Lectures there knew of this proud Rwandan guy who would not sit for exams on Saturdays. ‘Who does this bloody refugee think he is’, they said. So some of them would set up exams on Saturdays to test his faith; He never folded. He accepted to fail. He would come back the next year, he would squat with other students. He led an irreproachable behavior and built himself a name around the campus. Even the lecturers realized they wouldn’t defeat him, and patiently he finished with distinction on his eighth year.

That discipline is what has characterized Ngagi to this day. In his last job as rector, he was not pleased with the education system at the university. He thought it may be promoting mediocrity and wanted to change it. He disagreed with the owner of the University and chose to resign.

You see there are many smart lawyers in this country and many knowledgeable judges. However there are only a few principled and strong people with integrity.

At some point you could not constitute a full bench of principled judges at any court in this country. Having practiced for three years, I had lost faith in our judicial system. But that faith is fully regained now.

The Rwandan system is complex, and some prefer to dwell on the failures, and they are right. After all, failures have no reason to be. But every now and then, there is that light that appears on the horizon; that one that I seek every day, that one that keeps my hope alive.

Ngagi’s friend Kayijuka Ngabo, also a Seventh Day Adventist was the Chief Army Prosecutor. He was informed of a duty on a Saturday. He said he wouldn’t do it; they dared him, he didn’t turn up. So he was briefly sent to jail. When he came out, he served for a while then left the army. He remains respected among his peers. Today he has joined private practice; he will make a damn good lawyer!

Ngagi’s story is the story of many Rwandans in exile. His character and that of many more of his comrades, is what drove us to return to motherland, after thirty years in exile. It is what has helped us defy all the adversity and achieve the developments that many witness with awe today. When we speak of Agaciro, some people think it is a new concept. The truth is, it is a value that has defined the Rwandan spirit for generations. At home and in exile we strived for our dignity. Knowing his intransigent character, many were surprised by his nomination to the Supreme Court; I wasn’t. Actually I wondered what took them so long. He is finally where he belongs.

As Chief Justice Rugege retires, I was worried about our judiciary. Justice Ngagi will not be alone there though. I could not name them all here, but some are worth mentioning: Like Justice Karimunda, Justice Gakwaya and Justice Gatete, or even Justice Gatwaza at the High Court. There is nothing you can give these judges to corrupt them; there is nothing you can threaten them with to coerce them. If any of them presides over your case, you can be sure that you will be vindicated. These are Judges that make me believe in and be proud of our profession. There are still many things to improve, but my faith is regained in our judicial system.

I know in the life of a country there are many complex issues to grapple with; The truth, not being the only value to be considered. But ultimately that is what always prevails: The truth.

Many things have been written about Rwanda’s post-genocide recovery. Not much is written about our life in exile, and how in the face of poverty and oppression, Rwandans kept their dignity.

I know that we can’t get it wrong now because I know what Rwandans are capable of. I saw them at their weak point, and I can’t see how they will fail in their moment of strength.

I want to congratulate Justice Ngagi for his nomination. But I also want to congratulate his appointing authority. I want to pay tribute to the Rwandan spirit. Muhora muntera ishema, mu mpa agaciro. You vindicate me…


Posted 24th May