July 4 is Liberation Day in Rwanda. This year it has added significance. It is 25 years since the country was freed from bad governance and a genocidal regime.
This quarter century has been one of stability (the last 20 years), prosperity and transformation. It is safe to say that when Rwandans step out today to celebrate the liberation of their country, they will be doing so in the knowledge that they have made important gains worth celebrating.
They owe these gains to the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) that first liberated the country and has since then led the government.
This success attests to the uniqueness of the RPF, first as a liberation movement and then as a political party. It is one of a few to successfully transition from an organisation of struggle to one of government.
So why has the RPF been able to make the necessary change and lead the transformation we witness today?
The answer lies in how we evaluate success. Success is measured by actual performance and impact on people’s lives, not on promises, aims or ideals, however noble. It is measured by how these ideals and promises have been turned into real programmes. On this score the RPF has made significant achievements.
One reason is keeping in focus its sense of mission and designing programmes for its realisation. Liberation had several objectives.
First, it was to free the country from the legacy of many decades of hatred and division, distrust, conflict and bad politics, then to restore the unity of the nation, and identity and dignity of its citizens, and finally, to create a modern state.
A war to make this possible was, of course, fought and won. But that alone, as has been seen in other countries, is not enough. The RPF was able to go beyond military victory and build on it to change the country. It was able to translate these aims into implementable programmes of governance and socio-economic transformation.
Another reason: the RPF eschews a sense of entitlement that has been the curse of some liberation movements that eventually formed government. In some of these cases, those who fought stake an almost exclusive claim to the benefits of liberation.
You hear of such claims as: we fought and therefore deserve gratitude (usually in terms of special recognition and material benefits). War veterans become a special and influential constituency the power behind the throne.
However, they sometimes hold back efforts to move the country forward.
It is different in Rwanda. Of course, historical contribution matters, but current service and role in furthering the mission and the national interest count for a great deal as well.
The stand against entitlement is informed by an important principle: that liberation and nation-building is a journey on which citizens travel, keep on it and move forward together. Everyone has role and responsibility on this journey. How fast and far they can go depends on this.
Entitlement means privilege for a few and therefore excludes the many. It is divisive, discriminatory and runs counter to accountability. Which is why, the RPF again chose a different approach and built an inclusive society in which everyone participates in their own governance.
It has fostered a sense of shared national identity, unity, reconciliation and accountability.
In many post-liberation countries, progress has sometimes been hampered by a conflict between ideology and professionalism. Some place much value on ideological purity which then drives everything.
Others, like Rwanda, prioritise ideological clarity which engenders a sense of professionalism. It is for this reason that the RPF puts great premium on competency, efficiency and effectiveness as key elements in the delivery of its mission.
Another challenge for liberation movements that fail to make the shift from fighting or resistance to running a government is the way they relate to national institutions.
There is often a tendency to hold them in contempt and set those of the liberation organisation apart and above those of the state. The result frequently is a conflict between party and state functionaries that can lead to slow progress or even paralysis.
The RPF has been aware of these pitfalls and acted differently. It has made the building of national institutions and their respect a priority, as pillars of the state and symbols of nationhood, as well as agencies of service delivery.
And what’s more, these institutions and the philosophy and practice that underpin them are rooted in the national culture and history.
These two aspects: familiarity with governance practice that makes it easy to identify with them, and delivery to citizens are, to a large degree, responsible for the trust that Rwandans have in their government.
On this 25th anniversary of liberation, Rwandans do not only mark the events of 1994, but also celebrate the journey they have been on since then. It is a journey that has brought them many fruits and fast.
That has largely been because the RPF was able to make a successful transition from a fighting force to a governing party and so avoided the mistakes of similar organisations.
The views expressed in this article are of the author.