Alleged lack of Political Space in Rwanda: a creation of the Media or a reality?

There has been criticism of the Rwanda Government for alleged lack of political space in the country. Criticism is mainly from human rights groups and foreign Non-Governmental Organizations but government rejects this criticism and says these organizations have a hidden political agenda.Indeed behind some of the reports are the rump of the previous regimes and genocidaires hoping for regime change in Rwanda which would enable them to re-write history and sanitise their heinous past legacy.
Women groups played a significant role in drafting the constitution.(File Photo)
Women groups played a significant role in drafting the constitution.(File Photo)

There has been criticism of the Rwanda Government for alleged lack of political space in the country. Criticism is mainly from human rights groups and foreign Non-Governmental Organizations but government rejects this criticism and says these organizations have a hidden political agenda.

Indeed behind some of the reports are the rump of the previous regimes and genocidaires hoping for regime change in Rwanda which would enable them to re-write history and sanitise their heinous past legacy.

Before delving deep into this subject, one needs to understand what the implied political space is all about.
Political space is a realm in which opinions are exchanged between individuals, individuals and the public or the public and the Government.
According to the German Philosopher and Sociologist, Jurgan Habermess, political space is where citizens freely participate politically in their community through rational critical discourse.

Political space is a sphere where people come together to form a public forum that will work as a check to the state. Generally speaking, political space is a sphere where citizens, individually or in group, participate in political and socio-economic affairs of their country that directly or indirectly affect them.

Citizens use different means to participate in the affairs of their country. They may participate directly, through their representatives, the media such as press, journals, electronic media, associations et cetera. Hence, political space is said to be narrowing when Government prohibits citizens from participating in the political and socio-economic affairs of their country through banning freedoms of association, press, speech, petition and demonstration.

In order to rationally judge whether political space in Rwanda is widening or narrowing, let’s see the issue from the historical perspective beginning from the 1962 constitution of the Republic of Rwanda onwards.

Like many other countries with a colonial legacy, Rwanda’s constitutions before 1994 were rather allochthonous. The existing constitutions were based on foreign models which never took into account the peculiarities of the Rwandan nation and Rwandans never participated in the making of these constitutions as they were simply imposed on them by the colonial powers.

The Belgian colonialists drafted the 1962 constitution, with limited participation from Rwandans. On paper, the constitution provided for a multi-party system and guaranteed human and political rights, but in practice, it failed to prevent the spiral of ethnic and political violence that culminated into the tragic Genocide against the Tutsi in 1994.

Although the 1962 constitution envisaged a pluralist regime with various political parties to participate in elections, a single party system was quick to emerge in the Rwandan political life.

The Constitution of 1978 did not make changes in terms of democracy either. it instead abolished multi party politics whereby only the Mouvement Révolutionaire National pour le Développement (MRND), the ruling party then, was allowed to operate and only the president of this party was allowed to run for presidential elections.

This situation continued until 1991, when the pressure from international donors obliged President Habyarimana to adopt a new constitution restoring the multi party system. Although the 1991 constitution was meant to appease Western powers who were now demanding for multi-party politics, it did not work because of the intransigency of MRND hardliners determined to monopolize the political space. 

According to Pricilla Ankut of the IDEA, constitutional development ought to operate within social and cultural contexts. Where a society is culturally or ethnically divided, the constitution should strike a balance between the protection of the wider minority interests and the power of the central state authority. Sadly, this was not the case in Rwanda before July 1994.

For example, soon after the country attained its independence, the principle of limited government that was embodied in the 1962 constitution was replaced by the practice of absolute government, which concentrated state power in the hands of the President. Both presidents of the 1st and the 2nd Republics (Kayibanda and Habyarimana) appropriated power and generally conducted their affairs with impunity.

The judicial system was too weak to protect the rights of the Rwandan people.

In July 1994, following the capture of state power by the Rwanda Patriotic Force (RPF), a new transitional government was formed. It adopted the Arusha Accords as its constitutional base, but with some modifications. The Arusha Accords had attempted to establish a balance of power between the MRND, the RPF and the Mouvement Democratique Repubicain, Parmehutu (MDR).

The eight main political parties (that had not participated in the genocide) each received thirteen seats in the transitional legislature.

The transition Government was able to prevent the reigniting of ethnic violence and extremism by putting some limitation on the activities of political parties, the media and civil society.

Partisan political activities were not allowed at the grassroots level as government tried to reconstruct Rwanda’s politics through sensitization and promotion of participatory democracy. The transitional legislative body, which encompassed representatives of the eight parties, passed a new political party law that defined the criteria for political participation and created the Forum of Political Parties, aimed at promoting political consensus which would eventually lead to consensus-based democracy.

The transition Government of July 1994 to 2003 was guided by the constitution of 1991, the Arusha Peace Agreement, the RPF Declaration as well as the Agreement between political parties. Based on the Arusha Peace Agreement and Law No 23/99 dated 24/ 12/1999, the Legal, Judicial and Constitutional Commission was set up in the year 2000 to prepare a new constitution and revise the Rwandan laws.

From the start, it was clear that Rwandans needed a constitution that would secure and accommodate their fears of ethnic divisions, persecution and impunity; a constitution that would also consolidate the gains so far made and legitimize some of the good institutions already created by the transition Government of national unity, mainly based on consensus rather than confrontational politics.

During the next four years, religious and communal associations, professional groups, women's associations, trade unions, student associations and other NGOs actively participated in the constitution making process.

They saw this as an opportunity to make some input in the future of a nation that had been plagued by conflict and divisionism. In particular, women groups played a significant role in drafting the constitution.

For all Rwandans, the constitution making process was the first chance they ever had to express their national dreams and to highlight existing grievances. It was an opportunity to create a new dispensation characterized by tolerance, all inclusive and participatory politics.

According to Ankut, “Rwanda, through its constitutional history, never had a constitution responding to its own expectations as a nation. All its former constitutions were either copied from foreign countries without considering the reality of the country or were just there to satisfy the interests of the leaders at that time.” The 2003 Constitution making process tried to mark a departure from this state of affairs.

The Constitutional Commission tried as much as possible to involve Rwandans of all walks of life; peasants, students, religious groups, civil servants, were all consulted. A constitutional training manual was developed as reference for training and sensitizing the population.

Among those trained included students, the rural people, prisoners and the Diaspora.

A draft was written which was then presented to the population in a series of meetings before it was overwhelmingly voted for in a referendum and adopted in 2003.

The June 2003 Constitution guarantees freedom of association, assembly, opinion, and press and permits multiparty politics. The key ideas at the root of this constitution show that its elaboration was strongly based on the country’s context and challenges and is concerned with finding lasting and adequate solutions to the problems.

The fundamental principles of the 2003 Constitution revolve around equitable power sharing, establishing the rule of law aimed at improving social welfare and social justice, a pluralist democratic system, fighting the ideology of genocide and all its manifestations, eradication of any identity-based divisions, promoting national unity, equality of Rwandans among men and women and the constant quest for solutions through dialogue and consensus.

The Constitution has also put in place measures to address conflict and its causes in Rwanda.

Article 177 of the new Constitution for example; has integrated the National Human Rights Commission into the constitution as a step towards moulding Rwanda into a human rights respecting state. Under article 178 the 2003 Constitution, the National Unity and Reconciliation Commission (NURC) was established for purposes of defeating social, economic and political underdevelopment in Rwanda.

Article 179 has created a commission for the fight against the genocide ideology and article 152 recognizes the jurisdiction of Gacaca as part of the laws of the land to help address the question of impunity that has for long characterized Rwandan.

The 2003 constitution gives women at least a 30 percent representation in parliament which currently stands at 56 percent.

The 2003 Constitution is a people’s product and people see it as their own because they were consulted in the process. It was the first time the elite had gone to the villages to ask the opinion of people on how the country should be governed.

The constitution was arranged through an open and democratic manner and the process paid attention to the pains and aspirations of the people of Rwanda, their communities and their constituencies.

Since the adoption of the 2003 Constitution, Rwanda has regularly held local, parliamentary and presidential elections based on multiparty system, guided by consensus politics. These elections have been hailed by various international and regional observer groups, including the EU, the Commonwealth and the African Union.

The democratic transformation that has been taking place since 1994 has led to stability and sustained economic growth at an average of 7 percent.

As a multiparty system, Rwanda today boasts of ten political parties but only three (RPF, PSD and PL) appear to tussle it out during elections. The other smaller ones with the exception of PS Imberakuri have been in coalition with the ruling party, the RPF since 2003.

Owing to its historical evolution, the RPF has over the years evolved into one of the most powerful single political parties on the continent. Having been established towards the end of the 1970s as RANU (Rwanda Africa National Union) and changing name to RPF in 1987, the party has built formidable capacity in terms of human and financial resources and no wonder then that other political parties in Rwanda find it almost impossible to defeat RPF in any election.

Given this assessment of Rwanda’s political space, mainly from a historical perspective, it is unfair for anybody to claim that there is no political space in Rwanda. Indeed, there are those individuals and groups that will never appreciate whatever is being done in Rwanda simply because of their natural hatred for the ruling party (RPF).

The groups include the FDLR, other genocidaires or their sympathizers. Thus the local, regional and international media should be aware of the possibility of being tricked into re-roadcasting the FDLR propaganda.


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