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Umushyikirano and the pursuit of an African citizen-centred governance model

It is flawed reasoning to measure Rwanda against an ideal it does not aspire to
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Since 2003 – with the exception of the past 3 years due to the Covid19 pandemic – Rwanda has held an annual national dialogue, known as Umushyikirano, where leaders and ordinary Rwandans at home and abroad get an opportunity to engage on the most pressing issues facing the country. Media and civil society actors from different parts of the country and the world, as well as diplomats and representatives of international organizations operating in Rwanda, are invited as observers. After attending Umushyikirano, most observers are confronted with the irreconcilable irony of the fact that ordinary Rwandans actively participate in the choices the country makes on the one hand and the persistent labelling of Rwanda as a dictatorship on the other hand.

Thinking out of the box

Umushyikirano has roots in the series of post-genocide consultations – known as Urugwiro meetings – that lasted more than a year and a half (1998-99) where citizens from diverse backgrounds were invited to reflect on what had gone wrong. The aim of Urugwiro was to understand the underlying factors that had led to genocide and what kind of society could be built to ensure such a tragedy never happens again.

A key outcome of this reflection was the decisive decision to part with the one-size-fits-all externally generated prescriptions and move towards “non-conventional” approaches to nation-building and governance. Indeed, the set of recommendations that resulted from these consultations gave birth to a consensus model of democracy as opposed to the confrontational model promoted by the West and uncritically adopted by many African countries.

Accordingly, two phenomena have emerged. One, those accustomed to the prescriptions as the standard measures of progress, however well-intentioned, cannot make any meaningful assessment of the path the country chose because they are ignorant of this reality. Neither can they fathom that a different approach to governance could also bring about a democratic society. Two, there are those who are agitated that a small, resource-scarce, country like Rwanda can muster the audacity to reject externally generated prescriptions from ‘experts’ who are considered to know better about how societies should be organized in order to make any progress. In both cases, their conclusion appeared self-evident: “Rwanda is a dictatorship”.

Yet, the assertion that Rwanda is a dictatorship based on the neo-liberal measurement parameters of societal progress is neither here nor there. This is because the recommendations of Urugwiro meetings that set the national trajectory since 1999 rejected the neo-liberal model in favour of an auto-generated governance system based on post-genocide realities. In other words, it is flawed reasoning to measure Rwanda against an ideal it does not aspire to. It would be more sensible to assess Rwanda’s progress against what it aspires to achieve: citizen-centred development. This aspiration explains why most of the discussions during this year’s Umushyikirano were focused on the improvements made, or lack thereof, in the lives of Rwandans.

Rwanda’s Prime Minister, Dr Edouard Ngirente, began with a presentation that emphasized government actions that had the most impact on the lives of ordinary Rwandans. These included a) details of the use of the government post-Covid recovery fund which was critical to revitalizing Rwanda’s economy; b) interventions in the agriculture and farming sectors as a means to ensure food security in the context of the global food crisis, rising prices of fertilizers, and climate change; c) the construction of hospitals, health posts and health centres across the country; d) interventions aimed at ensuring access to electricity, water and affordable cooking gas; e) the investments made in education to provide young Rwandans with the necessary skills and knowledge to thrive in an ever-changing and challenging economic context; and f) the investments made in the industry sector with the objective of making Rwanda a manufacturing hub in Africa.

The most interesting aspect of the Prime Minister’s presentation was the fact that Rwandans could make sense of the benefits of a fast-growing economy not only in GDP terms but also in the practical improvement of the services the country provides to its people as a result. It is worth noting, however, that while ordinary citizens appreciate the opportunity presented by Umushyikirano to assess their government performance and make their contribution in the form of ideas, their country continues to attract the same old criticism that it lacks political space for dissenting voices. Needless to say, this criticism is misinformed at best, and malicious and misleading at worst.

The content of President Kagame’s opening remarks signaled to all that the Prime Minister had properly understood the “commander’s intent.” The two-day event had to focus on what has or hasn’t worked to improve the quality of life of Rwandans – no distractions.

With the tone set, officials on different panels told the audience about the state of access to electricity, water, road infrastructure, etc., with the kind of frankness not common to leaders, outlining what had registered success, and where they had fallen short and would do better. Ordinary Rwandans also chimed in to alert the leadership of the challenges they still faced in their communities.

The revolution that feeds the kids gets my support

Every revolution has its beneficiaries and losers. The American political scientist, Michael John Parenti, had an interesting take on regimes that attracted the “dictatorship” label after a revolution has taken place.

“You compare a country to where it came from, with all of its imperfections,” Parenti said, noting that those who demand instant perfection the day after a revolution usually get up and say, “Are there civil liberties for the fascists? Are they going to have their newspapers and have their radio programs?”

Parenti denounced the absurdity of this advocacy for the civil rights of criminals, some of whom had participated in the plunder of their country and the massacre of their compatriots, “That isn’t my criteria,” he said, adding, “my criteria is: what happens to those people who couldn’t read? What happens to those babies who couldn’t eat and were dying of hunger?” Parenti asked rhetorically before concluding, “The revolution that feeds the kids gets my support,” while underscoring that his was not blind support but one linked to improved conditions.

In the same vein, Umushyikirano is not a blind celebration of Rwanda’s progress; far from it. Instead, it is an opportunity to discuss what has gone wrong; that is, the factors that did not allow the country to achieve all its stated objectives, most of which are expressed in the (Imihigo) contracts signed by public servants every year. It is a platform for collective introspection.

On his part, President Kagame commended the collective efforts which have brought about a decent quality of life for many Rwandans, such as the fact that now Rwandans live the longest in East Africa (69 years). However, and true to form, Kagame could not help but observe that Rwanda’s achievements are being realised despite the poor work ethics of leaders. He invited public servants to imagine what Rwanda’s socio-economic progress would look like if they committed to working for the greater good of Rwandans instead of pursuing personal advancement and turning a blind eye to cases of mismanagement in areas under their supervision.

President Kagame also used the opportunity of this meeting to highlight areas in which the country needs urgent improvement. Most notably, and echoing Parenti’s concerns, Kagame wondered why the issue of stunted children has continued to persist in Rwanda. Speaking to the leaders, he asked: “Do you want to be known as the leaders who are well-fed and wealthy and yet they have stunted children?” The concerns raised by President Kagame and other participants, particularly with regard to the poor quality of education, will now constitute the kind of challenges that need urgent action from government entities going forward – the new area of Imihigo that requires redoubling the “sense of urgency,” the term Kagame used.

Ironically, there has been progress on these two measures: stunting dropped in 2020 while school enrollment is one of the highest in Africa (94 percent in 2018). But the standards, not the kind imposed by anyone onto Rwandans, are high and, evidently, more needs to be done. Rwanda’s revolution demands so if it is to overcome the frontal assaults of its detractors, particularly the fascists who have lost undue privileges granted by past genocidal regimes. The success of the revolution undertaken since Urugwiro meetings is the only shield against those who continue to portray Rwanda as anything other than a democratic society.

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