When Rwandans feel angry about the lies told about their country, their anger is justifiable. They find it incredible and insulting that people, some of whom have never set foot in Rwanda, can say that they have been gagged when they can obviously give full voice to what they feel, see and want.
For them this is something you cannot alter or wish away no matter how often or loudly you repeat the wish. It matters little whether those wishing Rwanda ill are uninformed, are bent on distorting reality or are toeing the official line (apparently in some places it is bad policy to say that things in Africa are looking up). The fact of Rwanda today won’t change.
Even once respected academics, but who are inexplicably rooted in the 1970s and 1980s view of Rwanda, have allowed themselves to be bypassed by the new Rwanda that they and opinions they hold are becoming irrelevant.
All these groups may soon realise that covering your eyes and thinking that what you can’t see doesn’t exist is only self-delusion.
That’s why Rwandans are now saying, ‘enough is enough’ to all the discordant voices about their country. Evidence for you that they know what they want and that they are certainly not gagged.
That used not to be so. In the past, the state decided for you. You sang praises to and genuflected before foreigners – especially if they were white – who were all invariably benefactors. Woe to you if you dared contradict the evangelists (read academics) of the reign, or worse, if you condemned them for their sins. Or if you were so irreverent as to contemplate any of these, you did so at the peril of eternal damnation, literally.
People were muzzled by forced reverence and went about with bowed heads and bent knees ready to fall to the ground any time in genuflection before demi-gods.
No more. They now walk with straight backs, look their leaders and foreign guests in the eye and say what they feel.
Certainly that was the way Tim Gallimore, a United States citizen and researcher in Rwanda, who attended the National Dialogue Conference last week, saw it. As he said, he saw open dialogue and free expression. He saw a president sit, listen to and discuss with citizens for two days. Compare this for full dialogue with the 30 second sound bite on TV that is the only interaction Americans get with their presidents.
There has been massive change even in the context of the National Dialogue Conference. Discussion and consultation have become the norm. It was not always like that.
When the National Dialogue Conference first started, it was often a forum for confrontation between leaders and citizens. The Latter accused their leaders of serious shortcomings – non-delivery of services, corruption, absenteeism and other abuses of office. Leaders at all levels went to the national dialogue with trepidation, afraid of having to explain their failures before the whole nation. There were stories of some ministers feigning illness on the eve of the dialogue.
Ordinary people enjoyed the exposure and obvious discomfort of the ‘big’ people as a sort of a re-enactment of the David and Goliath contest.
That was perhaps a necessary phase. Citizens, previously muzzled, delighted in exercising their new-found rights. Leaders, too, were having to account publicly for the first time and the idea of being answerable was not particularly appealing, although necessary.
Nine years later, Rwandans have moved to a new phase on their democratic journey as the 9th National Dialogue Conference showed last week.
Citizens no longer simply ask tough questions, or revel in publicly embarrassing their leaders. They are now keener to give counsel, not apportion blame; propose solutions to serious questions of development, not lament poverty and their inability to do anything about it. Both leaders and the led have the confidence and humility to work together on common issues, not to fight over petty privileges.
That’s how a head of umudugudu (village) in a rural place like Rutunga in Gasabo District can stand up and talk about building bridges linking them with Gicumbi District for increased trade between the two. In the past her concern would have been about visiting relatives only. It is for the same reason that she could talk about improved transport within her sector, increased access to clean water, electricity and schools. There was no mention of leaders stealing public funds or obstructing delivery of services to the people.
The example of the head of umudugudu in Rutunga shows one thing – local leaders feel empowered enough to see themselves as agents of development in their areas. They no longer have to wait for some government official from a far-off ministry to tell them what to or how to do it. More likely, they will tell that official what is needed and how it is done.
There are no more complaints. Perhaps the only remaining one is impatience. People want to get on with it, move faster to develop their neighbourhoods, enrich their districts and contribute to the overall prosperity of the country. That sort of impatience is a good thing. So is impatience with all those who want to put Rwanda down.
Merry Christmas to all my esteemed readers. Enjoy the festive season.