Serious undertakings, and silly utterances, it must be election time

Alongside Christmas, and other special occasions that tend to untether some folk from their common sense moorings, election periods are sometimes referred to as the silly season, a warning to innocent bystanders that among the serious, life shaping undertakings offered, will be quite a few silly utterances, sententiously declared.
Rwandans living in Japan at a polling station in the City of Kobe yesterday. Courtesy.
Rwandans living in Japan at a polling station in the City of Kobe yesterday. Courtesy.

Alongside Christmas, and other special occasions that tend to untether some folk from their common sense moorings, election periods are sometimes referred to as the silly season, a warning to innocent bystanders that among the serious, life shaping undertakings offered, will be quite a few silly utterances, sententiously declared. As Rwanda enters its election period, the US Institute for Peace (USIP) has come out of the blocks early to claim the prize for the silliest intervention.

Rwanda’s detractors invariably adopt a bizarre position: wax lyrical on the beauty of the rainbow, but, throw every invective at the sun and showers which paint it; or, speak admiringly of Rwanda’s achievements, but, decry the government that conceived, and drives them.


Recycling the now well worn apocryphal fairytale that President Kagame wants to “rule” until the second coming, or thirty-five years, whichever is longer, USIP opines that “...Kagame and his ruling Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) risk jeopardising the country’s hard earned recovery from the 1994 genocide...” Instead, the institute sagely advises both the RPF and Kagame to “take immediate steps to put Rwanda’s peace building efforts back on track”. 


As the Americans might say, let’s go ahead and point out a few salient facts here: the RPF does not “rule”. It governs by the will of the overwhelming majority of the Rwandan electorate. And, while it has always been the largest party by a wide margin, the RPF has never governed alone.


 The new Rwandan constitution, adopted by referendum in 2003, obliges the largest party, in this case, USIP’s “ruling RPF” to govern in partnership with its closest rivals. That is to say opposition parties, the same opposition which we are constantly told is suppressed. The Government of Rwanda is RPF led, but, in partnership with four other political parties.

President Kagame is nothing if not punctilious in his insistence that credit for Rwanda’s achievements must go not to him, but, to the entire Government and the people of Rwanda. But, despite this insistence, If USIP had been paying attention, they would have known that the “hard won” recovery they praise has been driven by the man, and the government they criticise. And hard won they have been, literary costing blood, sweat and tears.

USIP creates a straw man argument, one surmises in an effort to stay relevant in the Rwanda story. When have Rwanda peace building efforts been in jeopardy that ‘’immediate steps’’ should be taken to restore them? “Fortunately” they inform us, “this election isn’t expected to stoke violence...” It is hard not to think that USIP would really rather be talking of the violence to come, the better to offer advice on how to prevent it, thus earning its funding by fulfilling its mission to promote peace.

According to USIP, “donors should consistently remind the government that their partnership with Rwanda hinges on constructive steps to maintain the viability of Rwanda’s recovery”. This really is desperate stuff to be noticed. Why bother tilting at windmills? Had USIP been concerned with the truth, they might instead have encouraged donors to continue to support Rwanda’s constructive steps to maintain the viability of Rwanda’s recovery. Rwanda has led these constructive steps, not the donors, the Rwandan government does not need the donors to consistently remind it of anything. It is rather the Rwandan government that consistently reminds not only the governed, but, anyone interested observer that of the need to maintain the viability of the country’s recovery. That is the real world, before one steps through the looking glass for a peak into the fantasy one USIP inhabits.

There is a serious underlying consideration to all this. USIP isn’t some fly by night organisation. It is a body set up by Congress, whose board is appointed by the President. It is safe to assume its deliberations can influence American foreign policy. With potentially such influence, it is grossly irresponsible to publish any ill informed, clearly poorly researched report as this is. Claiming the report to be an “analysis” is overly optimistic. What it is, is a cut and paste exercise, lacking objectivity, obviously designed for USIP to be seen to be doing something.

The authors seem to be caught between an irresistible desire to claim credit for Rwanda’s advances, and rehashing outworn claims from the country’s detractors. They acknowledge the inclusivity of Rwanda’s impressive economic growth, the lifting of “thousands out of poverty” (it’s actually a million, but, let’s not quibble), dramatic reduction in maternal and child mortality rates, and add, “as the largest bilateral donor, the United States can claim some credit for these development gains...”

And why not. Except that judging from the many other donor recipient countries, what is donated has virtually nothing to do with gains in development. It takes the right policies, vision and the political will to implement these policies. The United States may certainly claim credit for giving financial support, but, whether or not this leads to development gains is entirely of Rwanda’s doing.

USIP outlines five areas they consider need urgent attention from the Government of Rwanda. These range from ensuring inclusive economic growth, locally led solutions, legitimacy of government, security and justice to sustainable engagement.

And who would argue with any of that, not the RPF led government for one. The contradiction at the heart of USIP’s supposed analysis, however, is that these are exactly the areas where the Government of Rwanda has been particularly strong. The foundation on which so many of the achievements recognised by USIP are based.

But, according to the organisation, “consensus is growing among experts...of state fragility...” Ah, yes, the ‘’experts”. Heaven deliver us from the self appointed ‘’experts” on Africa. On July 4, Rwanda marked the country’s liberation from the ideology and forces that had led it into the abyss of genocide. On that date twenty-three years ago, Rwandans, led by the RPF, begun to rebuild the nation, state institutions, in short, a society once again. Now, ‘’experts” spring out of the woodwork with talk of “state fragility”. Time was, but, that boat sailed some time ago.  

And their prescription for this supposed malaise is shocking in its wooden-headed stupidity, there is simply no other word for it: effectively go about re-establishing the superficial ethnic divisions which underpinned colonially inspired discrimination that led to a genocide so harrowing the mind balks at even imagining its details. At the last count, 1,074,017 men women, children are commemorated every April.

Yet, USIP fondly imagines the best way of cementing the gains Rwanda has made is to return to that system, single out one ethnic group for special treatment, so they can be lawyers, judges, and so on. This is exactly the sort of language that genocide perpetrators still at large, and their sympathisers are given to spouting come every election.

One suspects that USIP’s “experts” sat down with this jaundiced crew, absorbing their earnest claims about inequality in Rwanda, and then came up with this gem of an idea. It is of course in the interests of these individuals that Rwandans are defined, and divided along ethnic lines. But it is, to put it mildly, extraordinarily obtuse of an organisation like USIP not to be alert to this.

On the charitable basis that USIP’s “analysis” is more ill informed than ill intentioned, one should offer some guide lines: Rwanda’s lawyers, judges, teachers, civil servants, you name it, owe their positions not to their ethnicity, but, to their rights as Rwandans, equal before the law. When families are lifted out of poverty, when universal healthcare, primary and secondary school education is provided, it is not to a particular ethnic group, it is to Rwandans.

And that is exactly the point USIP should bear in mind, and begin another paper. And here is a radical suggestion: this time, let the ‘’experts” go on their well paid holidays, and instead speak to Rwandans, and reflect their lived experience of their country, their government.

The writer is a broadcast journalist and programme maker.

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