President Paul Kagame has officially begun his second term. He started it yesterday when he took the oath to defend the constitution and the territorial integrity of the country at a colourful ceremony.
And what a ceremony! It was unlike any other I have seen in Rwanda. It was a mixture of solemnity and simplicity, and pageantry amid a pop atmosphere, local yet with an international touch. It was full of import and emotion.
The ceremony opened in a new way – with prayers. Rwandans are fairly religious people, but for some reason prayers have been missing from our official events.
Of course we have prayer-breakfast meetings and conventions to pray for the country and so on. But as part of official functions? No. We have taken literally the issue of separation of church and state.
The novelty of prayer was interesting in another sense. It connected so well with the event and the mood of the country. Usually prayers are dull affairs, in which religious leaders, usually grey old men, intone their invocation of a distant, if powerful God in a lifeless tone.
Most people sleep or yawn through the prayers and only pay attention when they hear “Amen”.
This time, however, no one went to sleep. Sheikh Saleh Habimana, the Mufti of Rwanda opened the prayers predictably enough – with a recitation from the Holy Quran in Arabic.
Then he drifted into very beautiful poetry in Kinyarwanda, lauding the president and the people of Rwanda for selfless devotion to their country.
He commended the president and country to a God who loves beautiful verse, rewards hard work and hates injustice. Mufti Habimana’s prayer was music to those present in more senses than one.
Then Bishop Smaragde of Kabgayi Catholic Diocese took it up from Saleh. He too, quoted from Holy Scriptures. Then he went on to talk about patriotism and development and the special position of the youth in this development.
The worthy cleric might well have been another government official making an impassioned plea for patriotism.
Pastor Rick Warren got into the spirit of the moment. He told the record crowd that the day marked, not simply the inauguration of a president, but the transformation of a country, a nation that had once been forgotten by the rest of the world but which now become a model for that same world.
He spoke of the importance of choice, which was also central to President Kagame’s address. Pastor Warren said that the character of a nation is reflected in the choices it makes.
Rwanda had chosen unity, reconciliation and development. It had refused to listen to voices of disunity which could derail that development.
The pastor dismissed the self-appointed critics of Rwanda as people who can be ignored because they are not God (Sibomana).
The prayers blended well with the president’s speech. He spoke about the choices the Rwandans have had to make, which they have done in defiance of predictions of chaos and imposition of what he called “adventurers” by people with a sinister agenda.
While the men of God were poetic, the president was at his most assertive, telling off Rwanda’s critics that no matter what they said or did, the country would move ahead.
No one knows as well as Rwandans what it means to come back from the abyss and rebuild a functioning state, he said. Therefore no one can teach Rwandans lessons on tolerance, politics of inclusion and reconciliation.
It was a message that went down well with the people and the assembled heads of state. Not surprisingly, the western media that came under heavy criticism from the president was at it again immediately after his address.
The BBC carried a story about the swearing in but made sure to add information about the UN report on Congo. Their star source for the commentary was predictably a Human Rights Watch researcher in the DRC, Anneke van Woudenburg. She poured out the usual venom.
Yesterday’s ceremony was notable for another thing. There were more presidents than have ever visited the country at any one time, many of them for the first time.
Their presence was, as the president said, a sign of solidarity with Rwandans. It was also a signal to the detractors of Africa that Africans are prepared to stand together.
That is a message, I am sure, will not be lost on those who want to see Africa divided. They must have already started planning how to break this show of unity.
One of the highlights of the ceremony was, for me, the young children who pledged their support to the president, and to building the country. They are the young patriots, the future of this country, to whom the baton will be passed in due course.