This month marks the end of Rwanda\s first-ever Senate, one of the two chambers of our Parliament. The New Times’ Senior Reporter Edwin Musoni talked to the President of the Senate, Dr Vincent Biruta, and the latter shared his views on a wide-range of issues including the independence of Parliament, how the Senate has performed since 2003, the country’s general progress and his own plans for the future. Below are the excerpts:
As the first Senate, what is your impression about the value it added to the Rwandan political scene?
For the first time in the history of Rwanda, a Senate was established in 2003 and if we are to assess the value addition of the Senate on the political scene, we should look into its mission and the specific reason why it was created.
Back in 2003 before we came up with the new Constitution, there was a constitutional commission that went around the entire country asking the masses what they wished to see in the new constitution and the people expressed the wish to have an institution that would ensure that our violent political history does not.
It is on this note that the Senate was set up with specific principle of operation meant to ensure unity and peace among Rwandans.
Part of the assignments given to the Senate included the oversight of the Executive and vetting of senior officials to ensure that there is no divisionism or ethnic- biases in appointments of leaders like it was in the past.
So far, I am sure there has been an impressively added value to the political scene of the nation.
How did the Senate fair in its specific and unique responsibilities as enshrined in the Constitution (Article 9 and 54)
The Senate has four missions that are related to the fundamental principle enshrined in the Constitution. It is in this line that the Senate has so far published two studies – one related to Genocide ideology and another on political space in the country. We made specific recommendations on those studies. We are yet to publish another study on the social justice and the welfare of the population. We have also started another study on dialogue and the consensus building principle.
We have also supervised political parties on several occasions and came up with recommendations. Regarding the vetting of political appointees, we don’t just look at their papers; we hold dialogue with them to ensure that they really understand the new job they have been assigned.
A lot was done after the senatorial research on genocide ideology was made public, but there are still cases of genocide ideology. In your view, do you see a Rwanda without any case of genocide ideology?
We have worked hard but we are also aware that this kind of thinking can not just disappear because leaders have said that the people should abandon this (genocide ideology), and it is a process that requires time. Indeed, there has been progress but there are cases within families.
We have so far put the right strategies to eradicate it and Rwandans now understand genocide ideology, how bad it is and how it is propagated into different circles.
Measures have been put in place to ensure that the fight against this kind of ideology is eliminated and so far in the past two years, a lot has been achieved.
Regarding the research on social justice, when will it be published and what should we expect from it.?
We intend to have this research before the end of September though its findings are still confidential.
When we were going to conduct this research, we wanted to first understand how Rwandans perceive the fundamental principles enshrined in Article 9 of the constitution
So far we have realised that the population appreciates what has been done in terms of social justice and their welfare. However, we have realised that the government needs to do more for some categories of the people like orphans, widows, disabled people and the elderly.
These categories need affirmative action to ensure that they are not left behind but generally the population is appreciating what is done by the government in terms of social justice and their welfare.
Part of what the research findings indicate is that people want to have access to fair justice and we realised that there are still areas the government should improve like access to justice and employment.
As the inaugural Senate, what was the biggest challenge in establishing yourselves as an institution mandated to deliver particular political responsibilities?
Our biggest challenge was putting in place a quality institution that was able to fully understand its missions and organise it. This is why we had to conduct several preparatory meetings at the beginning. We succeeded and delivered in time.
There are public concerns that the Rwandan parliament only rubber stamps everything that comes from the Executive – judging from the fact that parliament has never publicly disagreed with the government on any issue, what is your take on this?
Our parliament disagreeing with the Executive everyday. This is how we do it; when we receive bills initiated by the Government and we amend them, that is a very clear sign of disagreement. If we summon ministers to come and answer queries we have raised, it means that we may not be happy with how the Executive is delivering on some issues.
From this, we may give recommendations or express views on what could be unsatisfactory explanations; this is the reason why I always say that parliament is disagreeing with the Executive everyday, but, Parliament does not conflict with the Executive.
When we talk about the two institutions and considering the public opinion, it is not about conflicting but rather complementing each other. This is the way we should see things.
We disagree but in a way that we reach a compromise or give orientation. Otherwise, we would not be doing anything here in Parliament.
We actually amend most of the bills that come to us; we sometimes reject some bills and return them to the Executive and ask for redrafting.
I will give examples: Sometimes we summon a minister over an issue we think is of national importance, and when we are not impressed with the answers given to us, we sometimes set up an ad hoc committee in order to investigate further issues we are not convinced about. This is our way of holding the Executive to account.
From a scale of 1-10, how would you rate the Senate’s working relations with the Executive (e.g) policy formulation and implementation?
I am very happy with the contribution of the Senate but I would wish an outsider to rate the senate. What I can say is that, after these eight years, I am very happy with the contribution we have made in policy formulation and review.
What do you think should be the priorities of the next Senate?
It is not up to me to set the priorities for the next team but I would say that the Senate is still a new institution and the next team will have to take on what we have been doing and ensure that the Senate has added value in our politics.
One of the key issues that should be looked into is ensuring the people out there get to know what happens in Parliament and make them part of parliamentary business.
You have a medical background but you have, for long, served in various key political positions since 1994, how did you adjust to the demands of your high - level political responsibilities despite a different training background?
There are no specific training areas that are required for political position. My medical background was not an impediment on what I had to do in my official positions.
Maybe, somehow, my medical background has helped in my political career but not to a bigger extent.
Actually, I am a specialist in public health and nutrition but previously, I was an active practitioner in the medical sector for more than 10 years.
At your age, you still look very energetic enough to continue playing a part in the country’s political leadership, what are your plans after leaving the Senate?
Well, I will remain a public servant and I am available to serve in any public duty.
By saying that I am a public servant, it means that I am readily available for any other public duty.
As the leader of one of the biggest opposition parties, what is your take on suggestions that Rwanda’s officially recognised opposition political parties work in the shadow of the ruling party RPF?
We have many political parties, each with its specificities. We have working relations, legal framework and consultation mechanisms. The difference of views and standing can be found in respect of each political party’s manifestos and electoral campaigns.
Rwanda was characterised by a history of violent politics with political parties engaged in confrontations. After the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, we have adopted new principles and political approaches, dialogue, power sharing, consensus building and inclusiveness. We differ without conflicting.
Do you think the ruling party has used its overwhelming numbers in Parliament to dominate the decision making process in Parliament?
During my tenure in Parliament, I have never witnessed RPF pushing decisions basing on the big number it has in Parliament
From your experience, do you think the consultative Forum for Political Parties has played a key role in Rwanda’s political evolution contrary to the claims that it is, instead, a tool used to clamp down on the opposition?
First of all, I want to let you know that I am very supportive of the Forum for Political Parties as a mechanism to build dialogue and consensus. It is a useful tool to ease the working relations and understanding within political forces.
Actually, whoever says that the Forum is used to clamp down on the opposition has never made any effort to understand what it is.
As far as I am concerned it is a very good mechanism. Maybe what is important is for the Forum to improve on its communication strategy so that people get to know what exactly they do.
Do you intend to stand for President, come 2017? And why?
No. I don’t intend to stand for President; but between now and 2017, we will have several other elections, why not consider contesting for a parliamentary seat?