Rwanda’s democracy is defined by its history

Every good literature I read on Rwanda, especially within the international fora, touching on our success story concludes with a ‘but.’ The ‘but’ which normally pours scorn and leaves a sharp stain on a would-be excellent message always points to the alleged steely-fisted approach with which the top leadership of this country governs.

Every good literature I read on Rwanda, especially within the international fora, touching on our success story concludes with a ‘but.’

The ‘but’ which normally pours scorn and leaves a sharp stain on a would-be excellent message always points to the alleged steely-fisted approach with which the top leadership of this country governs.

Many authors (even those with good intentions) will conclude with a twist of the message, that despite President Kagame’s steadfastness in turning round this historically maligned nation, his democratic credentials swim halfway.

I find a mismatch in this criticism. And this disparity is caused by one thing; the failure on the part of these critics to understand Rwanda’s chosen political path. 

First, given the nature of Rwanda’s historical upheavals, its democratic roadmap has to be judged within a different context and with special consideration. 

It’s a fact and well inscribed in the books of our history that Rwandan politics became essentially about ethnic entitlement and exclusion. 

So if we simply ignore this absurd history and simply call for Western prescription of democracy, we would definitely be missing a point.

Those who took it upon themselves to define democracy, say democracy rests upon the principles of majority rule which are coupled with individual and minority rights.

They say all democracies, while respecting the will of the majority, zealously protect the fundamental rights of individuals and minority groups.

Now this conventional definition is where the problem lies especially when it comes to Rwanda’s geopolitics.

In a situation like ours, where ethnic diversity is limited to only two or three groups, the formula of “appeasing the majority” and “protecting the minority” is simply adding up odds. Such a path could simply backfire in your face.

If one is to “respect” the will of the majority and downplay that of the minority, that, in my view, constitutes pitting one group against the other. Worse still, if you are to “protect” the interests of the ‘minority’ while the majority simply look on, you raise suspicions and tensions.

Therefore, the ethnocentrism that defines the character of our country cannot sustain this western definition of democracy.  Probably, only multiethnic settings could absorb this kind of prescription, though we have seen it backfiring in some of these societies.

But that’s not all. Let’s go beyond the question of ethnicity and look at simpler things which question the authenticity of ‘majority will’ as teachers of democracy want us to believe. 

If democracy is all about the will of the majority, what if the majority detest a social service, say in the health, education or infrastructure that government has concluded is good for a particular community. Does government simply fall back and pocket its plans?

For example, in Rwanda, when the Medical Insurance Scheme, “Mutelle de Sante” was introduced, the majority of the population resented it.

Not only because ordinary citizens were compelled to contribute directly but also because they saw it as a rigorous policy whose benefits were farfetched.

Today, Mutuelle is courted by even the developed world as one of the best medical insurance schemes. Same thing applies to Gacaca, Imihigo etc. 

This is where I come to the defence of Rwanda when it comes to critics who castigate its democratic credentials.

The constitution of this nation puts in place three unique pillars that aptly address our historical issues and craft our own democratic path.

First it calls for consensus-building on issues and policies that constitute our common national interests as opposed to riding on the monopoly of ideas from the winning ‘majority’ as those who defined democracy want us to believe.

Again, as opposed to what conventional democracy teaches us, it puts in place avenues for power-sharing whereby a winner does not take all but instead fosters the inclusion of all political parties in national debate and execution of development programs.

And finally it lays the ingredients for embracing our own diversity within the nation which should no longer be seen as a shame or threat but rather a powerful basis for uniting this nation.

These pillars do offer the best prescription for our political path, given how historically we are different from others. And they therefore form the bedrock of our democracy.

After all, the best democracies are those that guard against all-powerful central governments and decentralise power with an understanding that local government must be as accessible and responsive to the people as possible. The three pillars under our constitution offer this solution.

Besides, any governing system is fine if the people subject to this system are happy with it.

Ends

 

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