Another year, another Umushyikirano. To a casual observer, the just completed two-day event, now traditionally held under the splendid dome of the Kigali Convention Centre, or KCC, might seem little more than a gathering of the great and the good, which concludes with the last speech, to be repeated again the following year. In reality, the two days are some of the most important in the national calendar. The true nature of Umushyikirano as a forum for policy analysis, can be clearly glimpsed in last year’s concluding presidential address.
One could pick any year, but, last year’s was as good an illustration as any before it. It is perhaps not entirely accurate to call it a presidential address. The president, who chairs Umushyikirano, opens it with a State of the Nation address. This is delivered with the formality one would expect of such an address to the nation.
The concluding speech on the last day, however, is a speech by just another Rwandan, albeit a notable one, exercising his right to say his bit, as a part of a big national conversation. Often when addressing himself to Rwandans, President Kagame discards prepared speeches, and relaxes into conversational mode, at times more thinking aloud, than delivering a speech.
This strikes the right tone for Umushyikirano. The word is loosely translated as a National Dialogue Council, but, it holds a broader meaning. It could be described as a parliament where every citizen has a right to take part. It is one of many examples in African culture of true participatory democracy. Across the continent such examples are of course largely moribund now, but, have been revatilised in Rwanda.
At Umushyikirano, citizens can address the nation’s leadership directly. They can express their gratification, they can chide, they can suggest, above all, they speak their mind and hold the leadership to account. Their contribution may improve, make or influence policy.
Every contribution is accorded equal weight. Inevitably, that of the head of state is bound to hold greater attention, but his is simply another contribution, to be taken on its own merit. Last year, he begun it conventionally enough, quietly, with low key deliberation as is his way. He thanked the participants for what had been a productive Umushyikirano. He sympathised that it had been a long day, asked for a little more patience, promising to make his remarks brief. But, we were soon to be reminded that there is little that is conventional about this head of state.
There are well over a thousand people within KCC itself at Umushyikirano. They range from the entire nation’s leadership, both local and national, Rwandans of all backgrounds, representatives from every conceivable group or body, the youth, Rwandans living abroad, the disabled, the private sector, the farming community, you name it. Then there are those whose contributions come in through outside broadcasts, social media, texts, telephone. All channeled into KCC. Over the two days, the President had been the most indulgent of chairpersons, allowing most their say, a studied exercise in patience.
Now the floor was his, as he remarked somewhat mischievously, referring to some contributions that were over the top. “I was tempted to interrupt people, and say, ‘that’s enough’, but, I said to myself, it’s their turn, let them say their piece. Now that it’s my turn, I am going to say mine.”
“It would not be possible for us to discuss everything we would like to discuss,” he begun, “ but I thought I would go back to one point we didn’t touch on. I don’t know if we deliberately avoided it, or whether we didn’t attach much importance to it.”
“It’s the question of customer service, we ought to have had a panel discussion on it. I would like to touch on it in this context: wherever you might need customer service, be it at a hotel, a bank, a hospital, a restaurant, airport immigration, or our national carrier, RwandAir, if you are a discriminating person, and all of us here are, you will find something that needs improving. And I mean something in our power to improve, not anything that would be beyond us. If we do not look at this, discuss it, we will be missing something important.”
“And I would like to look at it not from the point of view of those who provide poor customer service, but, from the point of view of those who receive that poor service. That includes those of us in positions of leadership. Among us, there are those who provide services, and those who receive them.”
“If you are at the receiving end of poor service, often having paid for it, and you accept it, pay and go, then the problem is also with you. It’s not just with the server in the restaurant who takes your order, goes away, and comes back an hour later, and says, ‘what is that you wanted again?’, and you repeat the order, even doing so apologetically as though it had been all your fault, and he brings you whatever he wants, and you accept it, pay, and say nothing, you too are at fault. If we don’t demand good quality service, that’s a problem. It means that we are equally at fault. We who receive poor service and accept it, and those who provide that poor service.”
Even with the best will in the world, it is almost inevitable that after a period of time in office, political leaders, especially heads of state, will be out of touch to some degree. In some countries, journalists will lay elephant traps before them, by asking the price of basic commodities like a loaf of bread, or a pint of milk. Most will not have a clue. The inference is how then can they understand the lives of the people they lead.
One had to be reminded that it had been a long time indeed, since President Kagame had been anywhere near a queue for anything, any yet his description of the problem was so well observed, he may as well have been describing a personal anecdote. There is not a single person in the land who does not experience what the President so accurately described.
On the face of it, it is a simple, almost mundane observation, all too easy to take for granted. Yet, as he noted, it is something which, if ignored, could stifle so much else, if not all else. That he who does not experience it as so many do, is the one who raises it, tells us much about the man, and the nature of his leadership.
Those who are incredulous about an approval rating of 90+%, need look no further than this speech. And one need look no further than the same speech to understand Umushyikirano as a forum for sharing ideas about how to improve the lives of Rwandans.
A simple speech, with such profound importance. Look no further too, for an example of wise leadership.