It’s okay to be ambitious

The much anticipated nomination of the flag bearer of the RPF for the presidential elections took place on Saturday. As expected, President Paul Kagame got his party’s nod to lead it into the elections. It is his acceptance speech that caught many people by surprise. It gave context to his acceptance and encouraged the country to begin to think beyond him. It was introspective and insightful.

Kagame began by underscoring how he finds himself in a familiar situation. He must have been alluding to the immediate post-Genocide period when he was offered the presidency but turned it down in favour of Pasteur Bizimungu, a situation that forced the creation of a position of Vice President that didn’t exist then.

Kagame said that he wished he had come to take part in the nomination of a flag bearer other than himself to lead the RPF into the elections, to “pass the baton.” That is because that is “what we had agreed upon,” he told the thousands of RPF cadres in the audience.

But some “challenges” had emerged in between that “compelled” the party to nominate him. I suspect that Kagame was alluding to the deteriorating geopolitical environment in which the country found itself during what was supposed to be his last term: the Mapping Report in 2010; the M-23 farce; the “Intervention Brigade” whose intentions were never clear; France’s increased grip of the DPKO at the United Nations; the BBC’s “Rwanda’s Untold Story.” Who can forget President Jakaya Kikwete of Tanzania’s vis-à-vis the FDLR? Or the crisis with South Africa that led to a diplomatic crisis and more.

All these indicated that Rwanda still existed in a fragile geopolitical environment that is susceptible to international manipulation. Crucially, it was an indication that the country still needed a steady hand at the wheel. It was no time for learners. Rwandans were not ready to issue driving permits.

Kagame’s request

Kagame believes that challenges in the global environment will continue to exist. He also thinks that this is not reason enough to keep him as President. For him, it is a problem of planning so that when the time comes the RPF is not “taken by surprise.” And so, he has a plan over the next seven years. It is his request and it goes like this.

Kagame wants the country to identify a successor as it reduces the “factors that compel” his party to nominate him time and again. This is where it got very interesting. As he had told Andrew Mwenda in the post-election interview in 2010, he will not point to a successor because, he said then, his job is to ‘create the environment for such a person to emerge.”

For this to happen, he told the audience, people need to aspire for leadership in general and for the presidency in particular. He was clear that he wants the young people to vie for the presidency as long as they have the “right upbringing” that makes them the kinds of leaders that Rwanda deserves.

This was significant in Rwanda’s political terrain. Prior to this, perhaps the worst thing anyone could accuse you of in Rwanda was that you are “ambitious.” This has always perplexed me. People were either afraid to appear to excel in what they were doing; or, if they did excel, to underplay their contribution because they didn’t want to be seen to be “ambitious.”

It never made sense even when I came to understand that there was a culture of collective ownership of success. Now the President is telling everyone that there is no contradiction between being ambitious and seeking collective outcomes. This matters a lot.