Today is Inauguration Day in Rwanda. Paul Kagame will be sworn in for the fourth time as president after an election that only cemented his undisputed popularity among the people of Rwanda.
That Kagame would easily sweep to victory, no matter who his opponents in the poll were, was a foregone conclusion. Here is a man who has worked for the better part of his adulthood to earn the utmost trust and confidence of all the people of his country.
And there was no short-cut. To earn the trust of the people of Rwanda was never going to be effortless for anyone considering the criminality that for long dogged the high and mighty in this country, culminating into the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi that claimed a million plus innocent lives. It has been a long, tiring journey.
But if anyone was ever going to restore confidence of a broken and shattered society in a government, Kagame is certainly that person. Today, the people of Rwanda have become so used to his exceptional levels of dedicated service and consistency they are almost taking it for granted.
Yet, in all honesty, it sometimes feels like a dream to those who lived under previous governments to see Rwanda’s fortunes dramatically being turned around in less than a generation – with the country going on to become the safest African nation (World Economic Forum, Gallup Poll (US) surveys), the most improved country in ease of doing business globally (World Bank’s Doing Business reports), the second African country where it is best to be born a girl (Royal Commonwealth Society and Plan-UK), Africa’s third least corrupt country (Transparency International), among other feats.
Nonetheless, the people of Rwanda, the same people who went to the polls on August 4 to pick their next leader, are firsthand witnesses to this transformation. They have lived it and seen it all unfold before their very eyes. Each of these accomplishments is a result of meticulous and often ambitious policies that have resulted in life-changing actions on the ground.
Yet, despite all these gains, the country’s economy remained very small (at a GDP per capita of just $US738.6 as of 2016, despite having more than tripled in two decades), which is still far from representing the true aspirations of the people of Rwanda. The private sector is still weak and the economy needs more substantial FDIs; the country’s already much improved competitiveness needs further overhaul; efforts to link Rwanda to the seaports of East Africa through a standard gauge railway remain pretty much at the nascent stage; while the country’s trade deficit continues to widen, sometimes by two digits.
To the overwhelming majority of Rwandans, no one was better placed than a tested-and-trusted Kagame to lead the country in the foreseeable future.
Equally significant, for a people that had for long lived under autocratic, abusive and genocidal governments to have a leadership that’s pro-people and pro-inclusivity even when they have won a resounding mandate from the people, it was an unnecessary gamble to let go of such a leadership in the name of conforming to inconsistently applied standard that someone else feels fits Africa.
It therefore did not come as a surprise when nearly 4 million people petitioned parliament to give them a chance to revisit Article 101 of the constitution that barred Kagame from seeking another term in office. A subsequent referendum in December 2015 saw 98 per cent of voters backing the changes to the supreme law.
This was a clear indication of what the outcome of the presidential election itself would look like.
But there were other factors behind Kagame’s 98.79 per cent win. One of them being the fact that as many as eight opposition parties (including three that had previously fielded candidates against Kagame) backed his candidacy this time round and their leaders were vocal on the campaign trail in support of the RPF-Inkotanyi flag-bearer.
Now, this kind of unity among political actors is a rarity – globally. Unity among different political parties and consensual-rather-than-confrontational politics have played a key part in Rwanda’s post-Genocide recovery and healing.
The arrangement is such that no single political party will monopolise power even if it wins elections 100 per cent. This is entrenched in the laws of the land. For instance, the constitution stipulates that the ruling political organisation shall not hold more than 50 per cent of cabinet seats, while the President shall not come from the same political organisation as the Speaker of Lower House.
But there is also an unwritten tradition that has seen other strategic seats consistently go to opposition parties or independent politicians. For instance, the current Senate president is not affiliated to any known political party, while the Prime Minister belongs to the Social Democratic Party. This spirit and principle permeates through all layers of leadership.
That this power-sharing arrangement was devised by Rwandans and championed by those who in fact had legitimacy to do otherwise, as is the case in most other countries, speaks to the nobility and rare qualities that characterise Kagame as a person and leader.
Kagame has restored a strong sense of belief, pride and belonging among Rwandans. Never before have Rwandans believed in their individual and collective potential to become the best that they can possibly be.
Yet I have seen some foreign journalists ferociously criticise this pro-people and progressive leader and, by extension, his people’s aspirations. They have relentlessly attacked his outstanding reputation, even openly discouraging other Africans from drawing a lesson or two from Rwanda and its leader. There are also some that want to be seen to be neutral. It’s wrong. Journalists should stand for the truth.
The people of Rwanda and their government need to be supported, rather than unfairly attacked, in their continued legitimate aspirations and genuine strides toward a future they deserve.
The writer is an editor with The New Times.