A very uniquely Rwandan election has come to a close. Kigali is still in a celebratory mood and it is expected to stay that way until the swearing-in ceremony, which itself will also be a moment for yet more celebrations.
But as we celebrate, let’s also take stock of what has been an unusual election; let’s consider this an opportunity to learn a bit about ourselves in the expectation that as we grow as a society we know who we are: strengths, weaknesses, and warts.
For starters, the uniqueness of the election became more pronounced as a result of the referendum that kept intact the infrastructure of mass mobilisation. I shall return to this point.
But first, the security forces. During the electoral season, the security forces, particularly the police, demonstrated a specialized ability to protect Rwandans as they undertake their civic duty in the democratic process; it was on display through highly effective and sophisticated public order management approaches to crowd control aimed at preventing stampedes.
Consider, for instance, the foresight to reserve special sections for the elderly in order to protect their frail bodies from potential harm in large crowds. It is a gesture not to be taken for granted.
Second, we learned that we have a highly competent election commission: organised, efficient and effective. Except for the momentary lapse of trying to dictate the conduct of social media during elections, one that it quickly recovered from, NEC was both effective and efficient the rest of the way.
Whether it was in registration, campaign period, or in the announcing of results, the NEC was keen on transparency even when it was making difficult decisions; it was meticulous and gave reasons for the decisions it had taken.
However, it quickly learned that when given an inch, human beings are eager to take a foot: its show of goodwill was quickly interpreted as a weakness by an overzealous corps of embassy officials who began to overstep their authority by demanding explanations from the electoral body.
Indeed, had they not gotten checked, it is likely that their overreach would have undermined the sanctity of the entire electoral process.
Third, our media went AWOL. It was needed most when the country came under a barrage of ridicule from the international media. Rwandans were caricatured for dancing for the “dictator” and Africans were told they were “wrong” to emulate Rwanda.
They were the kinds of attacks that were not directed at Mr. Kagame; it was an abuse directed towards Rwandans, a society to which our media people belong.
And it is only them who had the tools to bring their colleagues abroad to order. However, in this difficult time they chose to recall their solemn duty to “neutrality.”
And when they did say something about the abuse it was to ridicule their own – in a show of advanced self-hate – with casual retorts that said that “Africans should write their own stories.”
Perhaps so. But when your neighbour’s house is on fire the wise thing to do is not to remind them of the fire extinguisher you think they should have installed. You help to stop the fire.
Exceptional on the ground election coverage by Athan Tashobya of The New Times and Fred Mwasa of KT Press were of redemptive value to the industry. They deserve an award for exemplary work.
Forth, the election outcome is how the cookie was expected to crumble. The 99% vote for candidate Kagame was predictable. I thought it would be 98 % but I was a bit off; everyone else got what was expected of them: Mpayimana surprised many, including yours truly, by coming ahead of Habineza.
As I have said elsewhere, this was surprising but not shocking; perhaps the surprising part is that Mpayimana almost doubled Habineza’s vote. Lest we forget.
Here’s how we got there. This is the point about the referendum I alluded to earlier. Those who showed up for the referendum to vote “yes’ were highly likely to return for the election and to vote the same way than those who had voted “no” during the referendum.
Moreover, there were some who didn’t turn up for the referendum but showed up for the election. This was more pronounced in the diaspora where the turnout was twice that of previous elections, according to the NEC.
Fifth, the mobilisation capacity, or infrastructure, that was in place for the referendum remained intact. This explains the environment of excitement around this election when compared to previous elections; it also explains the unusual excitement about the elections among the youth.
Indeed, it will be interesting to see going forward whether this momentum where the youth are excited about politics in general and elections in particular remains Rwanda’s body-politic.
I suspect it won’t. That’s because 2024 might be near in political terms but the resources needed to maintain such a machine probably makes its practical aspects rather prohibitive.
Finally, we learned that an issue based campaign is difficult but possible. This played in the hands of the incumbent because the opposition needed to craft competitive manifestos that demonstrate a true alternative in order to eat into the 98% of the referendum. They couldn’t.
Instead, they either piggybacked the incumbent’s manifesto or they went populist. Neither of these strategies worked because the former meant there was no need for change; the latter was seen for what it was: hot air.
The RPF manifesto wasn’t that competitive either. However, it didn’t need to be. This is why the party deftly chose to celebrate instead of campaigning.
This was a brilliant political strategy: it disarmed the contenders who found that they were competing against themselves about something else but political power.
And shooting blanks.