Over the past year or so I have been thinking about some of the political squabbles in our region. Some of these have dynamics that bring back memories of our tragic past, memories of 1994, thoughts that remind us of the potential to tear asunder the very existence of our beloved region.
Perhaps due to their nature and also to my professional background, I have focused my thoughts on the place of constitutions in state building, how they determine how the political agenda is set, as well as how binding political decisions are made in any given country.
At the centre of squabbles in our region has been the constitution. Although the specific questions raised against the constitution have differed from one conflict to another, the central deficit in almost all circumstances has been the failure to adequately tailor constitutions on the concrete experiences and aspirations of the people in the countries where such confrontations take place. Here’s why.
The problem has political roots. For one thing, most political parties in Africa are not premised on strong ideological differences. They are premised on differences on claims of who is better placed to prescribe solutions to common problems such as fighting corruption, poverty, or who has a better approach for pushing “development’ faster than the other.
These are methodological differences; they are not ideological schisms.
Ideological differences constitute sharp contestations over the kind of value-system that ought to guide a society. For Africa, the absence of these entrenched divisions is what explains why political parties tend to coalesce around ethnicity, regionalism, religion, as well as around other populist and divisive tendencies.
These are what fill the void left by the failure to pursue a meaningful value-system around which to organise politics.
Moreover, it also explains why such parties are inherently disabled in efforts to serve the interests of the ordinary person. Even worse, they pursue such a path all the while claiming to operate within the classic western template, a model that speaks to contestations of values in those societies.
In other words, the constitutions and the politics they midwife are artificially pegged to those models. Moreover, because they are not tailored on the concrete experiences and aspirations of their people, such constitutions are unable to do the things they should do under normal circumstances: to preserve the wellbeing of citizens.
The state of Rwanda arose from the ashes of 1994. In picking up its pieces, Rwandans crafted a constitution that is conscious of this tragic past, one that safeguards against its recurrence, a living document that brings the state in the service of its citizens.
More specifically, it is a constitution built on the concrete demands of a post-genocide society, especially its emphasis on building a state run on the principles of political power-sharing, dialogue and consensus, a pluralistic democracy that is mindful of the preservation of a people’s peace, security, unity and reconciliation, and mindful that all national efforts must place the welfare of the people at centre.
None of this is by accident. It is the deliberate state-craft that is guided by the country’s constitution that ensures that every significant identity group or societal segment is represented in decision-making, and that they feel that they are part of the national project.
The results are undeniable. However, critics argue that Rwanda’s constitution gives rise to a model of politics where opposition groups cannot operate effectively because they have to work together with other parties in a forum, and that this means they cannot thrive.
However, the critics forget that there is no legal requirement for parties to belong to the Forum. In other words, those that choose to opt out of that arrangement cannot face deregistration.
In any case, the more practical questions are these: why would a serious political party forfeit the opportunity to contribute its ideas around a table that seeks consensus? Would such a party be in a less or a more persuasive position in the face of the electorate? Finally, is it not likely that such a party is interested in power for power’s sake, with little interest in using political power as a vehicle for improving people’s lives?
In my view, choosing to opt out would be a strategic error. Indeed, such a party would be undermining itself in the political market place. In any case, its desires would be in direct confrontation with the preference of Rwandans to manage diversity with unity, to resolve differences by identifying a course of action that is in the general welfare, and to reject divisive politics in favour of the kind that advances the national agenda.
In other words, the Rwandan constitution does what its people want. In addition to the above, it rejects the notion that politics serves the interest of the elite few and affirms its purpose for transforming the lives of all citizens.
Moreover, by choosing to mitigate the consequences of confrontational politics as it is designed to do, the Rwandan constitution also rejects the politics that seeks to access power as an end in and of itself.
Finally, the genius of any constitution is in the wisdom that it is tailored to respond to the unique experience and the aspirations of those for whom it speaks. Herein lies the genius of the Rwandan people: to choose a constitution that speaks to their context, concrete experience, and aspirations.
The writer is a member of the East African Legislative Assembly (EALA) based in Arusha, Tanzania.