The Pursuit of Non-Adversarial Politics: Is the “Rwandan Model” Replicable?

There is a tendency among fans and foes to frame the new order as a ‘model’ or, more specifically, “the Rwanda Model”. Post-genocide Rwanda is the subject of many debates. One concerns whether the so-called ‘Rwanda Model” can work anywhere else in Africa. Within some intellectual circles a consensus has developed that it cannot. It can. Perhaps the most important issue to resolve right away is what this “Rwanda model” is or what it looks like. Suffice it to say that within Rwanda, many, among them the very architects of the country’s post-genocide evolution, question the very idea of a ‘model’, let alone whether what they have achieved should be replicated elsewhere without regard to context.

Commentators who consider this issue on the basis of conventional ideas about political reform, post-conflict reconstruction or even societal transformation believe that Rwanda’s single most important achievement are the strides it has made in the economic and social spheres, as seen in the consistently high economic growth rates, declining poverty, declining maternal and infant mortality, and rising literacy. These are all important advances.

Looking at the country’s achievements only in these terms, however, disregards something fundamental: the very foundations on which they are built. The foundation is the way politics is organised and practiced. To grasp the importance of politics one has to start from the period just before independence. As an independent country, Rwanda was born amidst political instability. It is to that early instability that one can trace the origins of the war that brought the Rwanda Patriotic Front to power, and of the mass violence, including the genocide against the Tutsi, which wiped out a substantial portion of the country’s population. So extensive was the physical and psychological damage that it was almost foolhardy to believe that Rwanda would recover. Even among the RPF’s leadership and wider membership, few dared feel optimistic.

However, from their country’s troubled history and the cataclysmic events which turned it into arguably one of Africa’s most divided countries, the inheritors of the post-genocide state drew useful lessons. Arguably the most important was that ‘never again’ should Rwandans, leaders especially, conduct themselves in ways that risked returning their society onto the path of self-destruction. Herein lies the explanation for why the new ‘ruling coalition’ comprising several potentially rival political parties, rejected conventional multi-party competition and its privileging of adversarial contestation for power which, in historically divided societies, causes or exacerbates inter-group divisions and conflict. Here then lie the origins of the country’s post-genocide political system. The rejection of adversarial contestation and preference for consensus building lie at the core of the country’s post-genocide political dispensation. Here potentially rival political parties which elsewhere would seek to undermine each other in pursuit of power, are constantly seeking to find common ground and work together rather than against each other. Consensus seeking has led to collaboration in pursuit of common aspirations, such as building a peaceful, healthy and prosperous society, not narrow, short-term goals, such as winning the next elections.

This is why election campaigns in Rwanda do not induce the kind of fear they induce in neighbouring countries where some members of the public barricade themselves in their homes on election day or travel to neighbouring countries or beyond in anticipation of violence. And here where some foreign commentators insist that electoral processes are neither transparent nor fair, elections attract far higher levels of citizen participation than they do in countries touted as the ‘model democracies’ the rest of Africa should emulate.

More importantly, the absence of unprincipled jostling for power and the inclusiveness guaranteed by the constitution have enabled Rwanda’s political elite to focus collectively on matters that focus on the well-being of the ordinary person rather than on winning or retaining power. While elsewhere ruling parties spend most of their time on hatching schemes to ensure they stay in power while keeping everyone else out, the Rwanda Patriotic Front, despite its political, financial and intellectual dominance, prioritises working with other parties in and outside the government, to ensure long-term peace, prosperity and political stability.

It is unlikely that Rwanda would have made the achievements for which it is praised if the RPF had chosen to run the country alone via the conventional multi-party model in which the winner takes everything and the losers get nothing. It would almost certainly have mired the country in contestations that, during the late 1980s and early 1990s, plunged the country into the crisis that nearly destroyed it. Had it chosen that path, it would have inevitably gone on to preoccupy itself more with how to maintain itself in power, the key preoccupation of ruling parties in conventional ‘multi-party democracies’ within its neighbourhood and beyond.

There is no doubt, the RPF is by far the largest, wealthiest and most organised political organisation in Rwanda. It is these advantages over other political parties that to some extent, explain the success with which it has defined and sold its vision to potential rivals and society at large, who have in turn literally made it their own. So now we return to the question: can the so-called Rwanda model work elsewhere? It can. However, whatever country or society may seek to reproduce it must, as a priority, focus on securing agreement among the wider political elite that conventional multi-party politics is not always the best route through which to pursue long-term stability and general wellbeing; and that they need not fear to experiment, including trying what outsiders may argue is unthinkable. President Kagame’s elucidation of Rwanda’s approach captures the essentials: “We don’t follow rules. We follow choices. We choose which way we want to go”.

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