When the parliament started out 25 years back, as a Transitional National Assembly, Juvenal Nkusi, was it’s first Speaker, from 1994 to 1997.
The parliament opened its doors on November 25, 1994, barely three months after the end of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi.
The now retired 64-year-old would carry on serving the nation as a legislator – in various capacities – until last year when he took a break.
At the time, the Transitional National Assembly, the precursor of the Rwanda Parliament, just like other institutions in the country, was in shambles, starting from its seat, which is the current parliamentary building.
The structure was severely bombarded by the forces of the then defeated genocidal regime.
It was targeted day and night because it was at the time of the Genocide against the Tutsi, home to a 600-strong battalion of the former RPA rebels deployed there to protect RPF-Inkotanyi politicians who were set to join a transitional government as per the Arusha Peace Accords.
The Arusha Accords, which had been signed in Tanzania and brokered by former President Julius Nyerere, constituted a peace agreement between the ruling MRND party of the time, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) and other parties that were operating in the country.
Also known as the Arusha Peace Agreement or Arusha negotiations, they were a set of five accords (or protocols) signed on August 4, 1993, to end the then three-year liberation war.
At the end of the Genocide, it took some effort to clean up the plenary hall and make decent operational space for the members of parliament, Nkusi recalls.
Inside, just like outside where everything in the city including all utilities and transportation services were disrupted for varying lengths of time, it was a chaotic scene.
Nkusi recalls that, among others, there was no basic furniture. Every lawmaker had to improvise to find a place to sit and do their legislative work.
At the time, a leaking roof during heavy rain forced the lawmakers to move in search of safer positions in the House but work continued nonetheless.
Despite the considerable devastation, however, in general services were restored about as rapidly as they could be used by the worn-out population.
But how did the lawmakers work in those conditions?
“I can’t say that I know how we did it. But it is said that once you enter the water you have to swim. You must swim or you will drown,” Nkusi said.
“The parliamentary building itself was in ruins and the country had no resources. Earlier, we knew that legislators were well-off honorable people in society. But here we were, becoming legislators without anything.”
A willingness to build the country
At the time, by and large, lawmakers had to do with food rations, instead of money, for a salary.
There was no finance or human resource management departments as there are today.
But dealing with leaking roof and destroyed electric installations and a dire lack in other key areas was not the biggest challenge, apparently. Recruiting regular parliamentary staff too was a challenge.
There were also political issues of the day to contend with.
“Going to parliament to enact laws that would govern people who were coming out of the Genocide, people who were not so sure about their future, and others who had just returned home from abroad with an image of a country of milk and honey but only to suddenly come face to face with devastation and despair was a great challenge,” Nkusi said.
Nonetheless, he explained, the the destroyed country had to be revived and this called for institutions which would ensure the whole system got back to its feet.
“In 1994, many of us were political novices, and dialoguing in search for unity. This is where the challenge started.”
The initial 70 lawmakers found it hard in many different ways, he recalled.
The 70 lawmakers comprised individuals who had repatriated from exile, former political actors in the country, liberation war soldiers and others. All had differing outlooks.
At the time, the main focus was to chart a common path to rebuild the country and institute inclusive national laws. But it was not easy.
Shedding light on the challenges, Nkusi talked at length about how even agreeing on the House’s Rules of Procedure became a complicated affair.
“Looking back, after 25 years, one now sees things moving but it took time. And, things were done despite all the challenges.”
“The good thing is that in all that chaos, there was one common factor; the shared willingness to build the country. Whatever debates and disagreements we had, at the end of the day; these were [disagreements] by people who had good will.”
Passing the first piece of legislation, the House’s Rules of Procedure, Nkusi recalls, was a problematic affair.
At the time, the lawmakers had put together the fundamental laws that were an amalgamation of different documents.
They got the 1991 constitution, the Arusha Peace Accord, the RPF Declaration of July 1994, and the political parties’ agreement of November 1994 and turned all these into one fundamental law that became the supreme legislation.
“We decided that if we combine all these four texts, they will guide us in our parliamentary operations. All these were documents made in a different spirit. Now, for sure, agreeing that the document published last was superior and making interpretations of things would cause many problems,” he said.
“Coming to a common understanding (on this) was an indication to us that we had a starting point. Therefore, the fundamental law became the constitution of the transitional government and it was respected by all the three arms of the state.”
Today, the parliament is not only fully established, but it is an example of a progressive House of Legislature to the world in many aspects, including having the largest number of women.
And, according to Nkusi, it is an epitome of how far the country has come.
Today Rwanda has a bicameral parliament after the 2003 constitution created the Senate, alongside the Chamber of Deputies.
The current Speaker Donatille Mukabalisa said: “Parliament has seen multi-faceted changes over the last 25 years. These include the fact that women’s representation in Parliament increased, from eight women in 1994 to a female-dominated Parliament of today.”
Women constitute 61 percent of members of the Chamber of Deputies, the highest number of women parliamentarians globally.
The women legislators, Mukabalisa affirmed, played a big role in the realization of good governance.
She said: “The fact that women have been involved in political life of our country is in recognition of a need to create and sustain an environment of inclusive and responsive political process.”
“And the more women representatives in Parliament, the more likely the Parliament will address women’s issues and gender equality issues.”