How Western governments rigged communiques on Rwanda's referendum

Last week, I invited on my TV show a representative of the National Electoral Commission (NEC), Mrs. Kansanga Olive, Head of Electoral Coordination and Civic Education, to debrief the referendum. I wanted to know if she feels that the commission was strained to run a referendum on such short notice.
A voter gets inked after voting the constitution review at Ecole La Colombiere site. (Faustin Niyigena)
A voter gets inked after voting the constitution review at Ecole La Colombiere site. (Faustin Niyigena)

Last week, I invited on my TV show a representative of the National Electoral Commission (NEC), Mrs. Kansanga Olive, Head of Electoral Coordination and Civic Education, to debrief the referendum. I wanted to know if she feels that the commission was strained to run a referendum on such short notice.

In my mind, the only people who weren’t given ample time in this referendum exercise were the Electoral Commission: two weeks to organise general elections: ‘We are ready!’ Kansanga told me; ‘It was no problem at all!’


As for the citizenry, the Rwandan people; they have been debating this question for the last four years or more. It is disingenuous, but unsurprising that all communiqués from western powers claimed that the electorate wasn’t given ample time to canvass a question that, by all measures and accounts was belabored, exhausted and ever-greened. I was disappointed to read statements from the United States government and the European Union, both alleging that Rwandans did not have ample time to debate their constitution.


For the record, I personally have written on this issue for the last four years. And I have written more than a dozen articles. And like me, the US government was kind enough to accompany the process, issuing a statement at every stage of the way – albeit, for both of us, triggering the opposite effect.


I wrote plain, analytical articles, I wrote satirical articles and I did quote scripture. When I felt that I wasn’t gaining ground I wrote a poem, that didn’t help; I wrote a legal brief and took it to the Supreme Court as ‘Amicus Curiae’ (Friend of the Court), alongside the Green Party’s case. 

I went to tour Europe, meet with different people, to get fresh ideas; when I came back, I started shows on Radio and Television and invited representatives of all political parties in Rwanda and Political experts. I invited the High Commissioner of the United Kingdom to Rwanda.

To all of them I put the question: what is your position about a possible referendum? Have you discussed it within your party caucus? And to the High Commissioner: Have you discussed this with your government? Do you have an amply discussed position? Yego! They all told me; except Frank Habineza, President of the Green Party, who said Oya! I gave him one hour on the show to explain why.

Prof. Nshuti Manasseh wrote a series of articles in this newspaper; Dr. Kayumba Christopher wrote many more in The East African. Eugene Anangwe, a popular TV host in Kigali, held on his popular 4-1-1, many debates on the matter on national television, and on radio, both to which I was invited alongside political analysts in the region such as Dr Frederick Golooba-Mutebi from Uganda and Innocent Muhoozi from Burundi..

The people, most significant, agitated for the signing of four million letters, written to their representatives in parliament: We want 101 changed.

At some point as the Constitution was being revised, drafters suggested a ‘Testimony of Faith’ in its Preamble: ‘We, the Rwandan people, Recognizing the Supremacy of God the Almighty’ – when others argued that it would be inconsistent with the secular nature of the State, the statement was removed. 

Churches were up in arms: ‘Why do you hate God so much’? Remarked a popular pastor; sorry: ‘Apostle’ – in Kigali, during one of his sermons.

To avert any tensions, the President had to explain that such provision was a mere draft, not in the previous constitution, and clarify that he was himself a firm believer in God and the gospel.

One of the popular Bishops of the Catholic Church made a public apology saying he had thought the ‘Testimony of Faith’ was being removed from the existing constitution.

Two days to the referendum, Ipsos reported that 90% of Rwandans surveyed, strongly believed that the Referendum would be free and fair. In the week leading to the referendum, MPs and other leaders were deployed to various parts of the country to sensitize citizens on the amendments and what they meant.

So the Rwandan people were more than ready. There were 30 Sections changed in the Constitution. Only one required a referendum: Section 101, which modified term limits to enable President Paul Kagame to potentially stand again as president after his second term in office expires. 

When the new Constitution was promulgated by Parliament, I wrote an analysis and pointed out what I thought were some of the problems with it. I was concerned that International Law was placed lower than the Penal Code in the hierarchy of norms. I twitted it to the President and copied our Minister of Justice.

Twenty minutes later, I was engaged in a long discussion with our Minister of Justice and the deputy head of the Constitutional review commission who explained some parts that were unclear to me, and agreed to lower the Penal Code to the level of Ordinary Laws. 

This took place on social media (twitter) for anyone to see. I asked all the human rights NGOs in Kigali to join the conversation, I even telephoned the UN’s Human Rights expert in Rwanda, asking all of them to contribute anything, they all seemed satisfied.

Others, questioned the wisdom of removing term limits all together and advised not only to keep them, but also to shorten them. To which the commission accepted, but provided for a transitional period of 7 years.

Every blog, every article, every bar, every church, in Rwanda, in the region, or anywhere where there are Rwandans, has been talking about this; and when the people were then given the go ahead, they went and decorated polling stations to reflect their readiness: Some went for club lounges, others opted for nativity scenes; while my favorite was the traditional Rwandan weddings setting. It was all festive, Christmas came early to Rwanda!

An old lady in Nyamagabe in the Southern Province was rewarded a Radio set, having reported at her voting station at 3am, four hours before the voting started. Overall participation was a record 98%.

Results were publicly counted and instantly shared on social media; so much so that we did the tallying ourselves, and called the results before they were officially announced.

This was an efficiently conducted election, zipped through in record time, with preliminary results announced the same night, and ended in celebrations all over the country:

African states are often criticised for rigging elections. However, what is less talked about is that Western statements on Africa, and on Rwanda in particular, are rigged even more.

They rarely reflect the truth of the matter, but what those who make them would want the world to believe. For that they see no shame in negating the truth and engage in demagoguery. For instance, while they unanimously recognize tremendous progress in Rwanda, these statements’ content hasn’t evolved for the last 20 years.

They highlighted lack of freedom of media and expression when there was one television and one radio; both state-owned. 20 years later, they haven’t factored in the advent of six more private TV and more than 30 radio stations. Add to that many websites, blogs, vlogs, facebook, twitter, instagram; etc. etc.; Platforms that Rwandans massively used on December 18th to track the electoral process, and that we frequently use to complain about water and power cuts in Kigali, or follow-up with the National Dialogue.

Their understanding of political pluralism is also rigged: when they call for political debates in Rwanda, they do not mean the type that is held between the Democrats and Republicans in America; the ‘UMPS’, Mo-Dem and Front de Gauche’ in France; because that would be like a debate between the ruling Rwandese Patriotic Front and the Social Democrats (PSD), the Liberals (PL) or even with the Green Party; people who agree in broad lines, on how the society should be governed peacefully in a Republic.

No, that is not what they mean; they would like the RPF to negotiate with FDLR or FDU-Inkingi. Terrorist groups that would like to turn up-side down our entire way of life, re-introduce ethnic politics, negate the genocide or perpetrate a new one. So when they call for political pluralism, they simply mean the US negotiating with ISIS and Al-Qaida: all in the name of Democracy of course… 

Elsewhere, the statement from the US government suggests that ‘peaceful transfer of power is the hallmark of stable, prosperous democracies’; They are absolutely right, which is why I want to ask them one question: The day, very soon, when Obama peacefully transfers power to Donald Trump, or a more likely scenario, when Francois Hollande transfers power to Marine Le Pen; would that be a ‘Hallmark of stable, prosperous democracy’?

It would be a ‘hallmark’ of many things all right; like the deportation of Blacks, Arabs and Mexican ‘rapists’ - as Trump calls them, I just doubt that would be ‘stable or prosperous…’

The world still remembers when Germans democratically elected Hitler and his National Socialist Party (NAZI). It was democratic, wasn’t it?

Also, one man’s legacy is good; a country’s legacy is better. President Kagame is being asked by the Americans to protect his personal legacy. Even I would love him to do that. The thing is, millions of Rwandans are more interested in their own, collective legacy. They reckon President Kagame is just the man to help them fulfill that.

This is not new; every nation in the world has had to rely at one point in time, on the leadership of one man, to consolidate its legacy. The French have their de Gaulle, the Americans their Lincoln. The time that man spent in power and the day he left isn't what is remembered. It is the state in which he left the country that ultimately mattered.

That man for Rwanda, as elections showed December 18th, is Paul Kagame. Whether people will say he stayed too long in power that is their right to do so. Rwandans have clearly made their mind about that; their answer was over 98%: YEGO!

The author is a human rights lawyer.

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