Rwanda’s model of democracy

Few would disagree that Rwanda’s progress in the post genocide period is credited to its unconventional approach to statecraft.

That there was a heavy dose of trial and error especially in the early days and that gradually as success became predictable it removed whatever element of chance. And that in turn, this helped to build a degree of confidence that helps to inform decision-making to this day.

What is unfortunate is that almost nothing has been written about these unconventional methods and how they shaped how Rwandan’s came to think of who they are as a people and what their place in the world is.

Consider democracy. Our understanding of democracy in Rwanda is largely informed by foreigners. They tell us what our political system is and its intentions. Often we disagree with them. We think that they are distorting our reality in ways that seek to transpose their way of life onto our imagination.

But much as we disagree with them, we rarely take the opportunity to actually express this disagreement in written or spoken form. We simply let it be. In turn they mistake our silence for acquiescence that they are right and that we don’t speak because we fear for our lives.

It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy from which they start to predict doomsday scenarios that never come to pass.

Which is why I was thrilled when I was invited to discuss Rwanda’s model of democracy with the Green Party’s presidential hopeful Dr. Frank Habineza on national television (RTV) with the flamboyant host Eugene Anangwe.

Rwanda’s approach to how political power is exercised involves power sharing. This has roots in the decision by the RPF to respect the (abortive) Arusha Accords of 1993 that were supposed to usher in a transitional government in Kigali.

Political power – held by the ruling party and the opposition in coalition – is expressed through consensus. These two tenets – power sharing and consensus – are provided for in the constitution (article 62 and article 10 respectively) and institutions such as the National Consultative Forum of Political Organisations have been established as platforms to entrench the practice of these tenets.

But none of these makes Rwandan democracy a “model.” Something is a model due to its unique features. And so, the unique feature of Rwanda’s democracy is not that it shares power between would be adversaries.

This is done in many places around the world. However, it is its organic nature that elevates Rwanda’s democracy to the status of a model.

Indeed, the model gets most of its organic character from the fact that it speaks to the aspirations of Rwandans.

Specifically, it is the consultations process that began nationwide a couple of years after the genocide and culminated into the Urugwiro meetings of 1998 through 1999.

As a nation out of genocide, the pressing issues for discussion were vast. Key among these was the subject of political power.

It was clear that Rwandans did not want to return to the kind of political contestations that they believed had played a role in facilitating an environment for genocide; instead, they opted for a kind of politics where power is shared and exercised in a way that is not confrontational.

These are the contours of Rwanda’s model of democracy. Everything else comes to reinforce these aspirations. In the context of Africa, the struggle for democratisation has tended to lack this organic character: how to build a home-grown political dispensation that speaks to the aspirations of the people.

It has been argued that genocide was a blessing in disguise for women’s empowerment in Rwanda. If that is the case, then the same can be said of democracy in Rwanda: without total destruction, it is unlikely that an organically derived democracy would have been possible.

But genocide is not the reason the model works in Rwanda. It works because of a third, equally important, tenet: accountability. It undergirds the exercise of political power in Rwanda. There would be no democracy to speak of – let alone a model – were it to exist outside the ambits of accountability.

It would be a democracy of slogans. The kind that is built on form and lacks substance, a democracy that makes the gallery very happy but one is deficient of meaning in the life of the ordinary person; it would lead to widespread disaffection.

In other words, an organic model of democracy is by definition accountable and serves the interests of the people. In turn, it is accountability that nurtures its growth.

Since the early post genocide period to the present, cracks in Rwanda’s governance system have come when individuals have tried to test the waters by subverting this aspect of the elite bargain. This suggests that those in power and the system challengers understand that accountability is the glue that holds everything together and why the stakesare always high – and sticks hard – when it comes to it.

That once it collapses, so will the system.Safeguarding this consensus is the responsibility of the government of the day. To reduce this to the RPF is to fixate one’s gaze on the trees and miss the forest.

Either we tell them who we are or they do that for us.

This blog was written by Lonzen Rugira and first published in The New Times.

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