KIGALI - After Rwanda’s second presidential election schedule was announced, the Commonwealth Observer Group (COG), a body that was constituted by the Commonwealth Secretary-General at the invitation of the National Electoral Commission of Rwanda (NEC)named its observer mission to the polls.
COG’s mandate was to observe the preparation for the elections, the polling, counting and the overall electoral environment.
The team, was headed by Dr Salim Ahmed Salim a career diplomat and former Secretary General of the Organization of African Unity(OAU).
Fred Oluoch-Ojiwah of The NewTimes spoke to Dr Salim prior to the completion of COG’s mission.
Dr Salim give us a brief of your mission
We are here to observe the elections. I have to underscore the term observe which is totally different from monitoring or supervising.
We have been here for 2 weeks. Prior to that we had a pre-assessment mission. In the course of our stay we have met extensively with the stakeholders.
We also observed the last days of the campaigns. Lastly we observed the elections.
What is the outcome of your mission?
We are extremely impressed by the determination of Rwandans to exercise their democratic rights.
Rwandans did so by coming to the polling stations in their millions. The polls were extremely calm. I must also say that the polls were almost carnival like.
I have observed many elections but normally you don’t get that kind of mood engulfing the citizens.
That brings me to my next question which is to compare in your own words the just concluded Rwandan polls and other elections you have observed elsewhere.
It is difficult to make a comparison.
By that I mean that a report of sorts will be made by your team and in that report you definitely will talk about how different the situation was in Rwanda from other countries which you have done this kind of work.
Definitely our report will come out. The report will talk about so many things even the shortcomings as we saw them as well as those things we considered to be exemplary.
By and large, we have been able to have a feel of the place. You are aware that Rwanda is the latest member of the Commonwealth.
In that context we strive to highlight how the Rwandan polls compare to the set commonwealth principles. We want to ascertain how Rwandan polls conform to the international principles.
What I can say is that the polls have been peaceful. In that particular context such an outcome is an impressive thing. As you know that some elections in our continent cannot be said to be peaceful.
The second point is that given the jovial atmosphere that punctuated the elections compared in sharp contrast to confrontational elections that characterized elections in other African countries, one can say that Rwandan polls stood out as good.
Lastly the National Elections Commission (NEC) did a very good job with respect to overseeing the entire process. However we noted a few shortcomings here and there that should serve as lessons to NEC in terms of consolidation of the tallying process from the local to the central levels.
Your ties with Rwanda goes back to its dark days when its people were trying to search for a new dispensation. You have just visited since the days of the 1994 Genocide against Tutsi. For Rwandans it has been a long political journey. What do you have to say about what you are seeing happening around?
You are right about my ties with Rwanda. I have been involved with Rwanda’s peace process in my capacity as the Secretary General of the Organization of African Unity (OAU).
Given that position I visited Rwanda quite often. I saw the hopes for peace when the peace agreement was being negotiated. I saw the breakdown of the peace process.
I witnessed the atrocities and the total destruction that were committed. Coming back 16 years later, I can only say that there has been a dramatic transformation. The progress is visible.
Let us talk about the shortcomings you observed.
The shortcomings were minor by nature that happens in similar polling environments elsewhere.
For instance while the casting process was perfect, delays at the district levels to conclude the counting served as one of the short comings that we observed.
How can Rwandans enrich their democracy?
To begin with you have to start from where you are coming from. Rwanda has gone through extremely difficult complex situations.
So whenever you want to make an assessment you have to go back to see where they were before. The effect of the Genocide against the Tutsi is a case in point. That is very important.
Point number two is that Rwandans are conducting their second presidential elections under a new dispensation. Obviously there have been some improvements in the system that is being established.
If anything, each and every country has got its own specificity. Rwanda is not different.
However, there are certain basic principles that must apply. It is those basics that people call the democratic character of a country.
On that basis I would say that Rwanda has made considerable progress. There is scope for improvement.
For instance we know the history of the media and we know the terrible things the media did, especially the hate speeches.
In historical terms the media does not have a lot of legitimacy and reputation.
Political observers are saying that there was no level playing field. Some people had misgivings about the opposition candidates. Such observers claimed that real opposition was muzzled. What is your response to such comments?
Again it is important to go back to history. I can say that the Liberal Party has been in existence for quite some time. They opted to participate in the Government of National Unity (GNU).
They became part of the Arusha Agreement. The same applies to the PSD. They are independent parties much as they had decided to form a coalition with the RPF.
Given that arrangement one would have to understand the fact that they are not inclined to be antagonistic to its partners within the GNU.
You can oppose without necessarily being antagonistic. Note this glaring difference. The next question is-should NEC have allowed other parties to run?
Definitely it depends on other factors. What are the shades of opinion that make up the Rwandan society? These are very important considerations.
In the case of Rwanda it is very difficult to make a generalized statement. Yes for us we would love Rwandans to ascribe to the basic characteristics of democracy.
But as COG we tend to agree with the fact of political life in Rwanda that those participating cannot be drawn from the ranks of persons or parties linked to criminal past such as genocide.
The politics of ethnic identity is a demon Africans have found hard to exorcise especially when elections are called. How can Africans deal with it?
While it can be said that ethnic identity is a fact of life; however its use to drive forth any form of narrow political agenda is a curse.
For as long as any of us tries to play ethnic politics such a society’s developmental process will always be undermined.
Not only that, but the peace and stability of that society will always be questionable. So the challenge of African leadership and even beyond is to embrace approaches that tackle such misgivings within society.
What Rwandans are striving to achieve in terms of reconciliation is highly commendable as exclusion is a recipe for chaos.
When Rwandans think of themselves as “Rwandan” rather than being a member of a particular group, this is a very positive gesture.
I am saying so because I come from a country where such principles have worked perfectly for us. We have 120 tribes in Tanzania.
You can imagine if each and every tribe talked about its own identity. Such an idea would not work.
Therefore, I must reinforce the fact that it is very important to build national identity and national cohesion.
Anyone who exploits ethnic differences for political gains in my opinion is a bankrupt politician.
Prophets of doom had predicated that elections would turn out to be chaotic. Some went and painted a picture of oppression of opposition candidates and muzzling of the press. Some said that it will be bloody. Some figures have termed the elections as a masquerade. What do you have to say to such comments?
I don’t subscribe to such thoughts. You see, much as there is room for more space we cannot just turn around and say that improvements cannot be seen or registered.
That is totally wrong. It is a fallacy to say that the elections were a fraud. People of this country are a people with a nationality, they are a people who can make their choices. People in their millions went to vote.
If they wanted to vote against President Paul Kagame or not to vote at all they could have done that. I visited the polling stations and witnessed first hand how Rwandans did it.
So to say that it was nothing is indeed very sad. The same applies to my colleagues at the COG. We will highlight shortcomings which is our responsibility.
And while talking about shortcomings in the Rwandan polls, I have to say that they are not peculiar to Rwanda.
They are shortcomings to many other countries. The challenge is how do you minimize those shortcomings and to maximise the positive things?
Having said that, I believe that now that Rwandans have spoken and President Kagame has been re-elected it is important to consolidate on the democratic foundation they have built for themselves. The polls just concluded is a reflection of the will of the people.