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Abakono Saga – Who should be doing the RPF ideological heavy lifting?

The RPF has been a victim of its own success and, as a result, was caught off guard by the behavior of some of its top cadres
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Last month news broke that a number of Rwandans had held a clan meeting in the Northern Province and held elections for its head, Umutware w’Abakono. When it became public that some senior government officials and members of the RPF had taken part in the meeting, something of a crisis ensued. Some of them were dismissed from their positions shortly thereafter. The RPF was caught off guard by the behavior of some of its top cadres. Their violation of a sacrosanct tenet of the party, the quest for a national, indivisible, identity and citizenship, could not have been expected or envisaged.

The context within which the RPF came to power was such that it had to preoccupy itself with the most immediate needs of Rwandans: post genocide justice, reconciliation, fighting poverty, ensuring equitable service delivery, rebuilding institutions and infrastructure, and building and preserving national unity. The RPF has been less rhetorical and more practical in orientation than most of the other liberation parties that have emerged across Africa.

One of the unintended consequences of this practical orientation has been that most of its ardent supporters believe that its ideology is service delivery. If asked what the RPF believes in, they are unlikely to look beyond improving the lives of Rwandans. This might be excused if it comes from the rank and file of the party. But it must have shocked the party to discover that even among its top cadres, there is a belief that its ideology is service delivery. Accordingly, some of its top cadres and officials must believe that as long as they show commitment to serving Rwandans and being accountable, they are living up to their party’s ideology.

The pursuit of oneness

However, as important as service delivery and accountability are to the RPF, they are not its ideology. They are only part – albeit important – of how the ideology is expressed. Its top officials surely know this and if they don’t, they are in a position to know. This is why they were publicly rebuked at the party gathering that took place at its headquarters thereafter, along with panel discussions that helped to put the violation in perspective.  At a time when the public’s sentiment was that the RPF had over-reacted to a harmless clan meeting, it was necessary to place emphasis on the fact that these cadres were playing with fire when the wounds were still fresh.

If service delivery and improving the lives of Rwandans are not the RPF’s ideology, what is it, one may wonder. The ideology of the RPF is the indivisibility of the Rwandan identity. For the party, there is only one Rwandan and all Rwandans should see themselves in him or her. When any part of this person is harmed, we are all harmed. We are supposed to feel each other’s pain. This is the feeling that is supposed to come to people’s minds and hearts when they embrace and live by RPF’s ideology.

This feeling is then supposed to be expressed in the day-to-day lives of Rwandans. Its expression in service delivery translates into no one being discriminated against and denied a service that he or she is entitled to as a Rwandan citizen. This oneness implies that injustice to one is injustice to all.

When it comes to accountability, an official who steals from the public purse wants to eat twice or more, knowing full well that it means that a meal is being taken away from others in the process. In this instance, the theft breaks the compassion for others that ought to come with feelings of oneness. Hence, oneness is supposed to be the software of RPF, its DNA.

Although this is the party’s ideology, the aspect that captures its sensibilities, the RPF’s ambition is to make the indivisibility of citizenship – a comradeship and compatriotism that should be extended to everyone who is a citizen of Rwanda – the national ethos.

It had assumed that its members had by now embraced this ethos and Ndi Umunyarwanda as the new tool in its quest for oneness and that they would live by it and inspire others to emulate it, which is how it would become national rather than party values.

Against this background, the clan event was an affront to the core sensibility of the RPF. Interestingly, no sanctions were taken against most of the officials who attended because deep down the RPF understood that it has taken for granted that everyone in the party, particularly its top cadres, understood that service delivery and accountability are underlain by something deeper.  But here is a key problem: the RPF has met hundreds of times to discuss service delivery and accountability. However, one can count on one hand the number of times it has gone out of its way to ensure that every member understands that oneness is in fact the goal (the end) – intego. And that the means for its pursuit include, among others, excellent service delivery, accountability, consensus, power-sharing, gender equality, etc. Crucially, the worth of the pursuit is such that it aims to restore dignity to what it means to be Rwandan. In other words, one does not need to be a member of the RPF to identify with this cause; they just need to be patriotic.

Not learning from history

There was some naivety and failure to learn from history on the part of those who attended the clan meeting. For them, the problem that caused tragedy in Rwanda was the Hutu and Tutsi identities. In their thinking, as long as Hutus and Tutsis belong to the same clans, a clan meeting is some sort of unifying endeavor that doesn’t threaten national identity: Ndi Umunyarwanda. Indeed, at that extended family meeting were people who would identify as Tutsi and Hutu. The fact that they were together at a clan – extended family – gathering is proof that indeed Hutus and Tutsis are one. They belong to the same family.

But this thinking is also proof that they are yet to grasp Ndi Umunyarwanda, which rejects and sacrifices any potential benefits of sub-national identities as being too costly when weighed against the potential costs. At any rate, it was due to clan rivalry between Abega and Abanyiginya – clans that both Hutus and Tutsi belong to as they do to all Rwandan clans– that the Rucunshu War of 1896 was possible, the result of which was the weakening of the Rwandan state that exposed it to colonial take over shortly thereafter.

The lesson from that period of history should have been that when the family is divided, someone is always lurking to take advantage of the situation. This lesson was never learned by the leadership that took over after colonial rule and the cost to Rwandan society has been far too high. In other words, mobilizing around exclusionary groups can lead to catastrophic outcomes and sub-national identities are inherently exclusionary since, for example, it would be odd for a person belonging to Abasinga clan to attend a gathering of Abashambo.

Thirty years later, as a society, we ought to have accumulated the wisdom to endeavor to unify people using the right tools and the knowledge that, given the context of our history with ethnicity, clan membership or any other exclusionary identity is no longer the right tool. Therefore, any efforts to bring back the tools that, even if innocently adopted, constitute a path to the abyss is condemnable. Being indifferent to, or ignorant about, the realities of the country’s history is dangerous and certainly unacceptable for those in leadership at any level. If anyone does it innocently, that amounts to lack of wisdom; if done intentionally, or deliberately, it shows how much more work needs to be done as a society in general and for RPF in particular since Rwandans have given it the responsibility to lead them.

This wisdom eluded the RPF’s cadres and top officials present at that event. But it also shows that the RPF has been a victim of its own success. It has been so successful in getting its cadres to preoccupy themselves with improving people’s lives through the ethic of accountability and service delivery – the practice and hardware – that it has not needed to articulate what it means to be an RPF member – the ideology and software – to its cadres. By letting them off, the RPF was de facto recognizing that it had given them only the hardware of service delivery because the times called for it. And the enormity of the challenge of service delivery was such that it became a preoccupation beyond which little else seemed important. Until now.

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