Democracy is as good as the context it is premised in

Last Monday, my curiosity got the better of me and I asked for a clarification on a passing remark in one of the regional papers. The gracious author surprised me by complying. Normally, I wouldn’t have bothered to ask because I’ve come to believe that, at best, I’ll be ignored or, at worst, get an insulting reaction. I honour authors who are free to account for their write-ups to any interested party, however biased they may presume them to be.
Pan Butamire
Pan Butamire

Last Monday, my curiosity got the better of me and I asked for a clarification on a passing remark in one of the regional papers. The gracious author surprised me by complying. Normally, I wouldn’t have bothered to ask because I’ve come to believe that, at best, I’ll be ignored or, at worst, get an insulting reaction. I honour authors who are free to account for their write-ups to any interested party, however biased they may presume them to be.

The passing remark, in an article that was otherwise on another topic, was: “One notices immediately upon arrival in Kigali the care with which the motoring classes follow traffic rules.” As an example, such a remark wouldn’t have provoked my curiosity. But the author follows it up with something about it being probably true for Singapore also and authoritarianism being “highly effective at ordering society.” The implication is clear. My curiosity was on how one can notice authoritarianism by observing order on the streets.

The author’s response was courteous and patiently, even if briefly, illustrative. And it is true, as he puts forth, that “Rwanda will eventually need to democratize” although, personally, I believe that it is in the process of doing exactly that. However, I’m still trying to wrap my mind around his last sentence, as it’d seem to re-enforce my belief: “Democracy is not defined by what the government does for the people; it is defined by what the people decide about their government.”

Now, except for my being able to read what’s written – and to express myself – in English, I am not any different from the ordinary citizen and wouldn’t say I know how to influence my government. But, like the next citizen, I know that I need the power of the numbers to decide about my government. I know that when I add my voice to a majority of voices, together we decide on what government to have, in the first place.

In short, the government in power today is the product of a majority of votes. More than 90% crowded at the polls to pick the RPF as a political party to form their government because they had developed trust in it.


An observer with the most cursory idea of the dark history of Rwanda knows, of course, that this was not always the case. When the RPF first appeared on the power-play scene of Rwanda, to many it was a scantily-known quantity and was viewed with suspicion and, even, hostility. The onus was upon it, therefore, to navigate the tricky waters of suspicion and hostility and yet manage to cultivate an atmosphere of trust. 

Whatever anyone may say, no one can deny that by 2003 it had won over a big majority and, by 2010, an even bigger. This majority is being won over by what the RPF government is doing for the people. And it is doing what the people mandated it to do. Government is guided by  the constitution around which everybody is united and the party’s manifesto that appealed to the majority.

No one contests the fact that all Rwandans are happy with the socio-economic progress that Government is posting. The contest is over whether Rwandans are enjoying their freedoms of expression and association (yes, only, for opposition politicians and journalists, again, only). But the reasons for the contest wither once put under the glare of scrutiny. The so-called politicians and journalists soon expose themselves as an elite combination of disgruntled elements desperately grasping for attention.

For initiating home-grown programmes, Government has always attracted calumny  in the initial launch period until the programmes start to bear fruit and the protests fizzle out only to be reawakened at the launch of a new programme. It was so with gacaca, mutuelles de santé (medical cover), nyakatsi eradication. It was so with many others and it will be so with many more. In fact, even before that, Government was accused of being military, one-ethnic-group dominated and others that in the end proved untenable.

In the final analysis, it is clear that some foreign commentators take up the song of these oppositionists without first observing the forces at play. In vigilantly protecting the rights of the ordinary citizen, this government ruffles feathers. The point is, whose feathers are they? They are the feathers of the night owl who is manipulatively juggling that citizen’s past weaknesses so as to rescue her/his (owl’s/oppositionist’s) punctured ego and penny bank.

Which weaknesses in so juggling, the owl hopes to get the boost of such innocent foreign voices so as to be catapulted into leadership. That spells as i-l-l-u-s-i-o-n but illusions are not peculiar to Rwanda.

Unknown to the owl: as the government is vigilant, so is the citizen. Democracy should be the shield that protects the citizen from the intrigues of that owl. I think it’s called participatory democracy.

Democracies should not speak to ideals. They should speak to the aspirations of every citizen in the context of his/her time and space. The citizen of this land has been bruised. Only s/he knows the democracy that will guard against an encore. And only s/he can give it to her/himself.

In the 9th National Council of Dialogue that is ongoing and closes this evening, “the people [are deciding] about their government.”

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