Three cheers for Rwandan democracy

11 Oct

I heard a foreign diplomat based in Kigali say just before the swearing in of the new prime minister that the occasion was very important. I thought so too. But I suspect our reasons for rating the occasion so high were probably different.
I don’t know what the diplomat read into the appointment and swearing in of Pierre Damien Habumuremyi as Prime Minister (there is a tendency to read into such things various meanings depending on the baggage one carries). Mine was this. This was the first time in our history that there had been a “peaceful” change of prime minister, so to speak. All previous ones had either been a result of violence, sacking, or been accompanied by flight from the country.
Mrs Agatha Uwilingiyimana was brutally murdered at her post. Jean Kambanda fled the country with the blood of a million Rwandans still dripping from his hands. Faustin Twagiramungu had an inflated opinion of himself and was too steeped in the divisive politics of the past to be of any use in the challenges that faced post-genocide Rwanda. Because he found it difficult to fit into the new Rwanda, he ran away. He has learnt nothing since then. He still makes the same caustic comments that are his trade mark, more to remind us that he is still around than to make any serious impact on our society.
Then there was Pierre Celestin Rwigema. He fled the country before criminal charges could be brought against him. Before all these, there was the forgettable duo of Sylevestre Nsanzimana and Dismas Nsengiyaremye between 1991 and 1993.
The transition from one prime minister to the next was always abnormal. Not so that from Bernard Makuza to P D Habumuremyi. And therein lies the significance of the change. It is normal to change governments just as it is usual practice to shuffle personnel as President Kagame said at the swearing in ceremony.
Normal change reflects maturity of politics and stability of institutions. Changes of this sort also reveal confidence that there will be continuity because the necessary foundations exist.
That a change can be made and the result is not what used to happen is proof of the strength of institutions. We have gone beyond identifying individuals with institutions – something “experts” on African politics usually dwell on as the norm and would describe what is happening in Rwanda as exceptional and not typically African. There has been a delinking of institutions and individuals who head them– with the former being permanent and the latter, temporary occupants.
I don’t know whether this is what the diplomat I heard had in mind. Probably not. What is certain, however, is that stable governance is now entrenched in Rwanda and that can only feed into growing democratic practice.
And talking about democracy, that, too, is becoming the norm and not the exception. Yesterday a new senate was sworn in, following elections a few weeks ago. This is only the second senate in Rwanda’s history. But it already has a permanency that makes it appear like the institution has been with us for as long as the country has existed.
That’s saying a lot. For an institution barely eight years old to make itself look like a permanent fixture is further proof of institutional entrenchment. With the second senate building on the achievements of the first, we can be sure of parliamentary permanency and a growing democratic tradition.
The same occasion yesterday saw the election of the President of the Senate and his two deputies. It was done in characteristic orderly and relaxed fashion – no acrimonious exchanges or unseemly horse-trading in public. If there were any such things, they must have been done behind the scenes, away from public view. And if there were any ugly scenes, we were spared the sight.
This also is significant. In the order of precedence, the President of the Senate is the second most important person in the land. You don’t need a divisive figure for this post, but rather a consensual one.
All this is good for democracy.
I wrote in this column earlier this year that democratic governance has taken root in Rwanda (See ‘Democracy takes root in Rwanda,’ TNT 22/2/2011). I pointed out then that elections had become such a regular occurrence that they were part of normal life. They have become so usual that they are even boring (in terms of lack of violent excitement preferred by some). In spite of this, they are competitive and attract candidates of the highest integrity. The senate certainly does as is to be expected since it is the custodian of national values.
The events of yesterday and last Friday, and the elections before that are all evidence of this fact. Yes, the diplomat I heard was spot-on if this is what he had in mind. If he had a different view, that doesn’t alter the fact. We can still shout hurrah to cheers to Rwandan democracy.

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