The issue of lack of political space and freedom of press in Rwanda has been a controversy for quite some time, with some people asserting that there is sufficient political space and freedom of press. As to whether the claim by some Rwandans, especially exiles and some international organizations that political space and freedom of press have been muzzled is true, and if so to what extent, was not resolved by the “public policy debate on political space and human rights in Rwanda” held December 14, in Kigali.
The debate, which attracted top government officials, parliamentarians, NGOs, media practitioners, diplomats, Rwanda Diaspora representatives and academics, however, provided an avenue for frank discussions on the state of political space, human rights and the way forward.
Dr. Frederick Golooba -Mutebi, a Ugandan Senior Research Fellow at Makerere University Institute of Social Research, was closest to offering an explanation for the contradictory perceptions. Rwanda has been recognized as a country with exemplary records of security for residents, socio-economic development, gender equality, universal basic education, decentralization and many more. Yet, despite these achievements which ordinarily are indicators of good governance, there are persistent voices of disenchantment.
Dr. Golooba who has done extensive social research in Rwanda, noted that it is imperative to view the Rwandan situation in its unique context. To him. people view the political space issue from different standpoints; those outside the coalition want more political space now. whereas the other group wants to open up slowly. The adversarial politicians (the former) disregard the Arusha declaration which underscored non- exclusionary politics which ushered in the government of national unity and the power sharing mechanism endowed in the 2003 constitution.
These politicians hold extremist views, down play the gains of the past 16 years and spread propaganda aimed at portraying a picture that what is happening in the country’s political arena is recipe for further violence.
The adversarial politicians spread disinformation which constitutes a major part of the ammunition used to create an impression that there is no political space, opposition parties are not allowed to register and freedom of speech curtailed.
The propaganda machine has caused fear and disillusion among Rwandans living in Diaspora. This, they say, in total disregard of the fact that through the decentralization reform sufficient political space has created empowering people in decision making. The fear caused by such disinformation was expressed by Rwandan delegates from Malawi and Zambia who said that Rwandans who live in Diaspora are fed on such rumours that they feel coming to Rwanda was risky. “Make a will for you will certainly be killed” they are told.
The extremist politicians and other unrealistic commentators tend to use standards and values borrowed from advanced democracies to judge Rwanda’s democratic performance, thus creating a site for the clash of opinions with the other group of Rwandans, like Brig. Gen. Dr. Rutatina, who argue convincingly that the current arrangements are necessary to maintain the stability and pursuit of the welfare of the nation.
Of course some universal democratic values and principles can not be ignored but even then, we can not ignore our historical, cultural, socio-economic uniqueness. Sincere Rwandans acknowledge the importance of what Dr. Rutatina called immutable national interests which he eloquently differentiated from regime interests, like security and sovereignty.
Yet others tried to demonstrate that Rwandans talk freely in informal settings. Prof. said “Abanyarwanda bavuga bacecetse”. By this, I understood that Rwandans traditionally don’t go about shouting their opinions but discuss quietly. Indeed, when you listen to radio talk shows, bar talks and even public transports discussions, you wonder where those who say there is no freedom of speech base their arguments. A friend from Uganda who attended the debate informed me that Ugandans, too, hold lively discussions in informal settings except for those who want to capture public attention.
The Minister of Local Government, James Musoni, showed how debate is integral to public life in Rwanda, from national level to the grassroots. In addition to national dialogue we have what is called inteko y’Abaturage and Joint Action Forum(JAF) which provide the fora at district and lower levels for local leaders, civil society and public participation. This is certainly an ideal space for political participation. What the civil society should tell us is how they perform. Certainly we do not expect the ordinary citizen to discuss the fiscal policy but he/she will have an avenue to discuss issues related to his welfare.
So is there a problem of political space or human rights? The civil society platform, which organized the meeting, will not find it easy to derive an answer to this question from the proceedings of the dialogue but succeeded in one important thing; Getting all parties involved in an open debate on issues human rights and political space, broadcast on RTV and Radio Rwanda was a plus for the Civil Society Forum. It demonstrates that those who fear to come to Rwanda fear Baringa (imaginary fear).They should also accept as truth that Rwandans enjoy freedom of expression.
Journalist Marcel Museminali, used the debate to demonstrate that government, though well intentioned, may sometimes trample rights of citizens through inept officials. The government Nyakatsi policy has been messed. Houses have been demolished without providing roofing materials to the affected individuals, making it appear like the lives of those affected to do not matter.