Can Rwanda go back to the pre-genocide politics of adversarial contestation, marginalisation and exclusion?

Recently I attended the National Congress of Rwanda’s ruling party, the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF). It was the first time I was attending it. I had been to a similarly large party gathering a few years before, when internal conversations were going on about whether President Kagame should run for office again or step down. At the time I still passed for a journalist and had been invited in that capacity. It is now several months since I stopped writing a column for the regional newspaper, The East African. The ‘journalist’ thing therefore no longer applies. By the time the invitation reached me, I had spent two days attending the Annual National Dialogue Council (Inama y’Igihugu y’Umushyikirano), where Rwandans from different walks of life gather every year to discuss matters of national interest. I was about to break off for the Christmas holiday.

The invitation came as a surprise. I remarked to a friend, a veteran of the party, that I was wondering whether someone hadn’t made a mistake. He said, emphatically: “they do not make such mistakes”. I don’t know him to be a loose talker, so I felt re-assured. But then later on, doubts crept into my mind again. Another friend I asked did not respond to the question directly but said that I should not carry a phone or laptop, as they were not allowed. I now knew it wasn’t a mistake. Still, there was a bit of a glitch when I arrived at the venue, but that was fixed quickly. Inside Intare Conference Arena at the party’s headquarters in Rusororo where the congress was held, the atmosphere was quite lively by the time I got in, just after 8 am. Lots of animated conversations, and singing, clapping and dancing here and there. Rwandans are famously reserved. At events such as this, though, they cast away their reserve and become rather lively.

Also, in attendance were leaders of Rwanda’s other political parties. Some of them are in formal coalition with the RPF. Others, however, are not. In a conventional multi-party system, these other parties would revel in being in ‘opposition’ and wear the label as a badge of honour. In Rwanda the label fits only two very small parties: The Democratic Green Party of Rwanda and PS-Imberakuri. Neither wears it with the same fervour that opposition parties elsewhere wear it. The reason for this peculiar situation is the uniqueness in the region, of Rwanda’s post-genocide political system. Designed to promote consensus and prevent adversarial contests when it comes to decision making, it hardly has room for political grandstanding associated with conventional multi-party politics.

That the RPF’s coalition partners would attend its internal meetings shouldn’t surprise anyone given they literally operate under its wing. But what of the other parties? To arrive at a detailed answer requires in-depth research. The short answer lies in what the RPF chairman and Rwanda’s President, Paul Kagame, said when he took to the floor and sought to add something to the way party representatives had been introduced, and to introduce two special guests: officials of Angola’s ruling party, the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA). He said they (the parties) were part of one family, and that the RPF only happens to be the eldest child (imfura).

The idea of being a family (umuryango) has defined the RPF’s self-perception as well as its image among it members since its inception. It stems from the organisation bringing together individuals of different ideological orientations and preferences under one tent. Whatever differences might have divided them, there is a general feeling they are united by common values and a collective ambition: building “The Rwanda we all want” (uRwanda twifuza”. An unsung – and little publicised as well as little understood – aspect of the RPF’s success as a political organisation has been that it managed to convince potential rival political organisations to embrace its ambition of “building the Rwanda we all want” and to turn it into a collective aspiration. A conventional, adversarial, multi-party-political system would have meant that the same political organisations become oppositionists, driven to always oppose the government as seen in ‘democratic’ political dispensations, including those in the country’s immediate neighbourhood.

If I were asked for a single explanation for Rwanda’s political stability over the last two decades and its rapid evolution from failed state in 1994 to arguably Africa’s leading reformer and innovator, I would mention the choice that potential political rivals made to work together in pursuit of a common destiny. The alternative, working against each other, driven by narrow, partisan interests, would have amounted to courting instability, given the country’s history. The decision to work together is therefore the foundation underlying the “New Rwanda” project. There is nothing perfect about how things have worked and work since 1994. However, according to opinion inside the country, and this matters more than what outsiders think, post-war Rwanda works better than pre-war Rwanda and the government delivers more results for the ordinary person than used to be the case. Had political leaders in their different cocoons opted to continue to spend their time trying to outmanoeuvre each other, the story of post-genocide Rwanda would not have turned out differently.

But one may ask: what is this “Rwanda we all want”? The answer is rather simple. Pre-genocide Rwanda was built on institutionalised discrimination and exclusion. Some refer to it as an ethnocracy, but it was more complicated than that. Regional origin was no less important than social background in determining who enjoyed what rights, who had access to what, and who could make what claims on the state. This created many victims, including among categories that, according to popular lore, would have been beneficiaries. Post-genocide, “uRwanda twifuza” simply means Rwanda where citizenship and not social identity or regional origin determines one’s rights and obligations. It is a Rwanda where being Rwandan (ndi umunyarwanda) is what really counts before the law, not one’s social or geographical origins.  And this is the Rwanda which most of the country’s political class inside the country are determined to build together. How they go about it, is a detail subject to on-going discussion in the various institutionalised fora where discussion, debate, and comparison of notes happens.  

There were many take-aways from the Congress, even with the relatively short time I was able to listen to the speeches and presentations. Perhaps the most significant was the extent to which the party leadership was willing to discuss openly, in the presence of leaders of other parties, details of the various challenges their party must overcome to ensure its long-term survival as a values-driven organisation. It was indeed as if one was witnessing an extended family meeting. As a I left to attend to other business, I wondered what might be the long-term impact of this way of working on politics in Rwanda, and on wider Rwandan society. Can Rwanda go back to the pre-genocide politics of adversarial contestation, marginalisation and exclusion? I highly doubt it. Should it? God forbid.

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