Rwanda’s democracy is still the model for Africa

A listener sent me a text message during a radio show after Rwanda’s recent elections. It read: “I didn’t vote for Kagame, but I still expect him to bring electricity to my village.”

A listener sent me a text message during a radio show after Rwanda’s recent elections. It read: “I didn’t vote for Kagame, but I still expect him to bring electricity to my village.”

In this way it is now common in Rwanda to hold leaders to account, and to demand they improve livelihoods. Yet while few doubt my country’s rapid social and economic progress, too many observers are blind to the successes of our political evolution.

Those who look in from outside ignore the fact that competitive democracy requires sustained social cohesion. It is important to look at the challenges my country has faced, healing the deep-seated wounds of a shattered society in need of both justice and reconciliation.

No country has moved from genocide to confrontational politics overnight. But Gacaca, our system of community courts, has tried more than 1.2m genocide suspects in the last five years.

These reformed perpetrators have been allowed to resume their lives by acknowledging their crimes and asking for forgiveness. Today they live peacefully with their victims.

Many also fail to understand that it was precisely a system of pluralistic politics that played a major role in the genocide, as newly formed parties with shared extremist ideology outperformed the former one-party state in mobilising the population to commit mass murder.

It was, therefore, unsurprising that in 2002, during consultations for a new constitution, the people of Rwanda were wary of endorsing any type of political activity that could renew sectarian violence. Instead, they accepted political pluralism on the condition that parties would not operate at local level.

But, we are making progress. Stability and cohesion have since increased, so in 2007 we amended the law to allow parties to operate at grassroots level. Other reforms came too: because Rwandans gradually accepted the need to tolerate even those who killed their families, we also abolished the death penalty.

Rwandans do have a voice in their own affairs. We have developed an effective system of decentralised government, in combination with a process drawn from Rwandan cultural tradition – known as Imihigo – where district mayors commit to targets, and compete to top their counterparts.

This has made institutions more responsive, and has improved public services – for example, in the building of 3,000 new classrooms last year.

The massive attendance at rallies during the campaign was a loud statement of confidence in our democracy. Rwandans voted the way Americans, Brazilians or Germans vote: not along the lines of ethnic division, but by the inherent unity that has always existed among us. The subsequent high turnout spoke volumes too – for why would so many vote, if the contest was not important to them?

Nonetheless, these truths were ignored during our election. Some in the media and the international community seem uninterested in fact-checking, and simply invented stories that play to damaging historic prejudices.

It is a shame that some so casually disregard the views of the majority of Rwandans and prefer to elevate the dangerous opinions of fly-by-night individuals, which in turn threaten to reverse our hard-earned stability.

But this is part of a wider problem. For decades, one-size-fits-all development and democratic prescriptions have been imposed on Africa, with unsatisfactory, sometimes tragic, results.

Yet to break from the cycle of underdevelopment we must seek innovative, home-grown solutions. Rwanda is one of the countries that have chosen to apply unconventional mechanisms to solve daunting challenges. And it is working.

African countries that take this stance, and the partners who support them, are reaping political and economic benefits. But this is often in the context of misguided criticism that undermines Africans’ ability to take charge of our destiny by, for example creating misconceptions which may discourage investors.

In the coming seven years before I pass on the leadership to the next generation, we Rwandans will not be distracted by such criticism, but will continue along our own path to an increasingly constructive and competitive political environment that takes full account of our history, political culture and evolving circumstances.

We have learnt the hardest way that, at the end of the day we, and only we, bear responsibility for what happens to us.

The Financial Times

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