Understanding Rwanda’s Democracy

On 26th May 2003, a new constitution was promulgated, against the backdrop of genocide, by a society appalled by the horrors of ethnic division and eager to embrace unifying policies. It was hence entrenched in values of unity and reconciliation, privileging dialogue and consensus as the only ways for democratic engagement and spontaneous power sharing arrangement across ethnic lines. From its preamble and throughout, the 2003 constitution provided for institutions such as the Forum of Political Parties and the National Dialogue Council. It rejected the reference to ethnic affiliations and called all Rwandans to embrace ‘a common vision of our destiny’.[1]

The discourse of consensus and dialogue has defined Rwanda’s political landscape and supported the attainment of the current peace, stability and steadfast growth. However, such stability may have come at the price of democracy. What some call benevolent dictatorship and others guided democracy is a source of controversy in and outside Rwanda.[2]

The RPF led government is built around one principle: ‘Plus Jamais!’ ‘Never Again!’ Created following the 1994 genocide of Tutsi: To endure and to survive at any cost! Accordingly, Rwanda must never, ever again suffer genocide. One people, one nation; No to genocide ideology, no to ethnicity-based politics; privileging a more spontaneous power sharing arrangement across ethnic lines.

This credo is seen by some as a controversial and assimilative stand, strategically used by the RPF to extend and affirm its supremacy over other political movements[3]. Many admit however that it has the merit of maintaining peace, stability and security so far.

Rwanda’s socio-economic headways in the last 20 years are widely hailed. The governance system by the RPF and Paul Kagame as its president, are seen by many as the right cure; providential to an Africa that has for long, been proverbially short of solutions to its historical and systemic ills, such as poverty, corruption and conflict[4].

However there are voices which persist that we may be headed towards another political crisis; that our political system, which leaves little room for dissent is risky. The most vocal of these voices are compounded in the book: ‘Remaking Rwanda’[5], as well as in the declarations of Rwandan exiled political dissidents. There are other disputed scholars who hold the same views.

One institution in particular illustrates the flagship of Rwanda’s consensual political model: the Forum of Political Organisations. Established by Section 56 of the Constitution of the Republic of Rwanda, and criticised by many as the hallmark of lack of political freedom in Rwanda. The Forum is a space where all discussions and debates between political parties are held, shielded from the public. It draws its essence in the ‘Fundamental Principles’ in Section 9(6) of the Constitution.

In an interview last week with the president of the second most important political party in Rwanda the Social Democrat Party (PSD) and a long serving senior authority in post-genocide Rwanda; having been Speaker of both chambers of parliament successively and Minister in many portfolios, Hon. Dr. Vincent Biruta highlighted that he was not seeing our political system of dialogue and consensus changing anytime; in fact, he hoped for all African countries to adopt it.

Indeed Rwandan political model has a lot to offer to this continent, where politics is usually synonym with populism, and unlike in Rwanda, leaderships with no deep-rooted social transformational agenda, nor the needed sacrifices imposed to those in positions of power.

Sadly, scholarship on Rwanda is seldom dispassionate. Some scholars have no problem describing Rwanda as North Korea-like open sky prison; while the Rwandan opinion prefers paradise on earth.

The truth actually isn’t in any of those descriptions. It isn’t even in the middle – that would be too easy. Rwanda is an effective country where things work. Anyone is punished when they are caught cheating, regardless of their status and affiliation.

There are limits to ones freedom due to its peculiar history of inter-ethnic and regional conflicts; accordingly, Unity of Rwandans is value number one; far above other values held as important in other countries.

The situation remains delicate though: I recently joined the Democratic Green Party of Rwanda in their petition to the Supreme Court to block a possible referendum to waive presidential term limits. I submitted amicus curiae brief on behalf of my law firm, the Centre for Human Rights – Rwanda. The brief happened to present arguments that were close to those of the applicant.

The initiative has enabled me to appreciate the pressures that are put on anyone who dares question the ruling party or hold a view that is different from the government.

I personally received encouragements from the open minded RPF members who understand that the work of a lawyer is to defend anyone, and, as expected, I was scorned by the usual sycophants; keen to be caliph in the caliph’s place!

Surprisingly, the only support the Democratic Green Party received in their on-going petition was from the president himself, who tweeted that the Greens were merely exercising their right – the same president who has not clarified whether he will seek another term or not.

Rwanda’s politics is therefore complex for those who want to make it, and an open book for those who get the big picture. It is a constant experiment, where every player is a student, progressive, eager to reform.

There are two ways to go about it. Believe foreign media and live under untested fears on the frontiers of our freedoms, or engage, campaign and advocate. One step at a time; everyday.

[1] Constitution of the Republic of Rwanda of the 26th May 2006 Preamble 1°, 7°; Sections 9(2), 56 and 168

[2] Fraser Institute (1998) Freedom, democracy and economic welfare

[3] Straus and Waldorf (Eds) Remaking Rwanda State Building and Human Rights after Mass Violence (2011) University of Wisconsin Press

[4] Collier (2007)‘The Bottom Billion: Why the poorest countries are failing and what can be done about it?’

[5] (n6 Above)