Rwanda: an umuvumu-solid democracy born of Gacaca

I strongly believe that ‘agacaca’ defined the way most African societies were organized, before colonialism. Kinyarwanda for “turf”, agacaca was named otherwise in other societies.

But in all cases, it meant a venue where people sat in the shade of a tree to deliberate on issues of concern to their community.

In Rwanda, this shade was often provided by umuvumu, a type of sycamore tree. It’s strong, can enjoy long life, be of immense size and gives large leafy protection from the African burning sun.

Villagers picked a council of wo/men of integrity who’d sit here and listen to problems, opinions and whatever matter needing consideration, to deliberate over for appropriate action.

Any issue beyond the powers of these councils went through a hierarchy of higher councils up to the topmost seat of leadership, the national level.

That our society was found to have this sophisticated hierarchy of leadership is the key reason that colonialism embarked upon gnawing at it to finally put this society asunder in the horror explosion of 1994. That was the grist to the mill of colonialism’s endeavour.

On stirring awake, Rwandans went back to the basics.

Gacaca, now shortened for modern convenience, had served them well and they reverted to it, albeit with improvements to fit the times.

That’s how Gacaca community courts became famous for their surgical efficacy in swiftly trying close to two million genocide cases at minimal cost. Meanwhile, the financially bloated UN appointed International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in Arusha, Tanzania, struggled in confounded, impotent stupefaction, unable to try but a trifling three score.

Gacaca had once again demonstrated that when you centre everything on the people, you can literally perform miracles.

Many think Gacaca went with genocide arbitration and its outstanding accompanying unity and reconciliation accomplishments. Nay, I dare aver, it informs the governance of this land.

The wide world may know all about umuganda, umushyikirano, umwiherero.  But who knows about abunzi, akagoroba k’ababyeyi, ubudehe, ibimina and myriad others whose true meaning would be lost in translation?

Indeed, this Gacaca streak manifests in ways that even some of us Rwandans may not exactly appreciate. Few of us are aware of citizen-based programmes that take place under our noses.

Take me, for example. Visiting one sector of a district the other day, I was confused to find some elderly people and those with disabilities loafing about, instead of being home.

On enquiring as to why they were lazing around there, one elderly gentleman scoffed: “Lazing? You are lazing around here. We are waiting for Kagame money.”

Kagame money? That was new to me! But even as I was mulling over it, an official started calling them into his office one by one.

When “Elderly Gentleman” came out of the office, he flashed some Rwanda Frank notes at me. “Want one for your ‘elite’ throat, stranger?” he mocked!

After work, the official explained this to be one aspect of the Vision 2020 Umurenge Programme. It’s a local development programme to accelerate poverty eradication, rural growth and social protection, said he. Employment and any other kind of empowerment is sought for the able-bodied villagers while the frail are given monthly emoluments.

Yes, elderlies’ emoluments in an African country!

Together, the citizens decide on these categories for the community. Communication on all decisions is alive through all institutions, local and national, in a concentric kind of governance network.

In today’s Rwanda there is no up there, where power looms over all.

When a citizen talks about “Kagame money” that “Kagame” refers to an institution that’s charged with supervising other institutions.

Together, these institutions make VUP and other programmes tick.

And there is the Rwanda system for you. It’s been painstakingly forged by the “iron and blood” of Rwandans.

This country is not a creature of any foreign body.

American Congress members cannot give orders on what to do about an errant Rwandan citizen who uses fraudulent methods to “apply for a job”. The law of the land must run its course, and indeed it has.

Do these ‘guys’ remember the “Buy our castaway apparel and footwear or else!” threat? Rwanda opted for “…or else!” and waited. She is still waiting!

Anyway, shouldn’t these ‘sympathetic’ Congress members be having their hands full, with a ‘trumping’ black cloud hanging over their heads? Or with a black community to protect from the wrath of police, said community only now seemingly enjoying a brief lull?

And isn’t it true that we can go on till cows come home?

But this is Rwanda, where we only mind our Gacaca self-management business.

And where every single Rwandan is prominent, made so by this Gacaca-streak governance.

Where we have seen foreigner after foreigner catapult an errant member of our society to a position of “highest-profile opposition figure” for more times than we can count. And kept our cool, knowing soon there will be another “highest-profile figure” kid around the block to sing about?

Come to think of it, ain’t it soothing music to our ears as we work hard at our Gacaca self-management business to build this “role model for the region” (Forbes’ words, not mine)?

US Congress yodellers against Rwanda, like it or don’t, this land is an umuvumu-solid “Gacaca democracy”. “Consensus democracy”, in your lingo.

The views expressed in this article are of the author.