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Is Rwanda’s political space closed? It depends



Rwanda’s willfully misunderstood political system was on display last week as President Kagame inaugurated the incoming Senate. President Kagame is, obviously, the Head of State and member of the RPF-Inkotanyi political party. The President of the Senate, the country’s number two, is Augustin Iyamuremye of the Social Democratic Party (PSD). His Vice Presidents are two women, Dr. Alvera Mukabaramba of the Party for Progress and Concord (PPC) and Esperance Nyirasafari of the RPF.

The Speaker of the Lower Chamber, also a woman, is Donatile Mukabalisa of the Liberal Party (PL). Her deputies are Sheikh Musa Fazil Harelimana of the Ideal Democratic Party (PDI) and Eda Mukabagwiza, another woman, of the RPF-Inkotanyi. This is the apex of Rwanda’s “political space.” If Rwanda’s political space is filled with such a diversity of actors at the gender and party levels – and even at the ethnic subtext – then why does the country continue to face the charge that its political space is closed? Here’s why.

During Urugwiro meetings, of the late 1990s, a gathering of opinion leaders from all walks of Rwandan life, whose aim was to chart the direction the country would take following the catastrophe of genocide, it was agreed that the country would continue to operate a multi-party system. The decisions that came from these gatherings were taken to the people through consultations that would lead to the first post-genocide constitution. Perhaps the most shocking discovery during the consultations was that the people did not want multi party politics. The argument was that the charged political atmosphere (of political ethnicity) around the introduction of multiparty politics in the early 1990s had served as a catalyst for the genocide. It is the politicians who brought their divisions to the people, they argued.

How to reconcile the position of the Urugwiro gatherings and that of the consultations became a pressing issue. Since political parties were known for bringing divisions to the people, what if they could call them something else? The framers of the constitution returned to the people the argument that unlike in the pre-genocide period, there would be a political family

“umuryango” that would deliberate in a spirit of cooperation on key challenges facing the country and share ideas on how to overcome them (kungurana ibitekerezo).

Astonishingly, the people didn’t have a problem with political families that may have different ideas but they could discuss and the superior ideas would emerge as long as the objective was to address Rwanda’s pressing challenges. This explains why Rwanda constitution recognizes political “organisations” [Imitwe ya Politiki] rather than political “parties” or “amashyaka.” Most significantly, the requirement that they work together to solve challenges held in common is what gave birth to the politics of dialogue and consensus.

Article 10 of the Constitution establishes power sharing a “fundamental principle” of the state of Rwanda. Article 62 operationalizes this fundamental principle thus:

“The President of the Republic and the Speaker of the Chamber of Deputies cannot come from the same political organisation. Cabinet members are selected from political organisations on the basis of seats held by those political organisations in the Chamber of Deputies. However, a political organisation holding the majority of seats in the Chamber of Deputies cannot have more than fifty (50%) per cent of Cabinet members. It is not prohibited for other competent persons to be appointed to Cabinet.”

Once the power is shared the political actors are required to arrive at decisions through a “constant quest for solutions through dialogue and consensus,” another fundamental principle of the Constitution. The Constitution also establishes the National Political Consultative Forum as a permanent, voluntary, platform for such cooperation of political organizations. The face of the Consultative Forum is Dr. Frank Habineza of the Democratic Green Party of Rwanda (DGPR), its spokesperson.

We have seen charged political contestation deliver multipartyism without democracy. This is partly due to the dogmatic commitment to the process rather than the content. This is what Rwandans rejected: they had learned the hard way about the ruins of a cosmetic model of democracy that places a premium on form rather than content, on process rather than outcome. Instead, they chose a model grounded in cooperation (process), itself grounded in solving society’s most pressing issues (outcome).

This is the much-maligned political system that doesn’t live up to liberal democracy’s demands for charged contestation. A political practice that does not live up to the adversarial expectations that are the hallmark of western democracy cannot get the stamp of approval from the “architects of democracy.” Indeed, until the process is aligned to the expectations of liberal democracy then whatever outcome results from any other process will not get the validation of the “international community.” Consequently, the political space will continue to be defined as “closed.” Which begs the question: to whom is the political space closed if the actors in the political system stand in that very space? Is it more important that they stand in that space or that they arrive there through a contentious process?

And so, whether Rwanda’s political space is open or closed depends who is asking and what they wish to do with it.


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