Rwanda continues to confound friend and foe. It refuses to be conveniently pigeon-holed and will not be just like any other country. It will not follow the beaten path just because everyone else does, often preferring to fashion its own because that might be the best way to get to a particular destination.
That is our uniqueness. We do things because they suit us, speak to our circumstances and work for us, not because someone directs us to do so or because that is the usual thing.
And so, we have learnt to critically examine our situation, design appropriate solutions to issues that arise from it and own the processes of their implementation right from inception to execution. We have also learnt from the experience of others and consequently been able to avoid the pitfalls they have fallen into.
Rwanda has come a long way in the past 19 years largely because of this.
We are now applying the same method that has given us such good results to the post 2017 debate. That is the reading one gets from the RPF meeting of February 8 regarding Rwanda’s future after 2017. President Paul Kagame invited Rwandans to play their role in determining that future and managing the democratic transition. That way, they will own the process and outcome.
The President set the terms of the debate by presenting a trinity of elements, different but equal, separate but part of one indivisible process: change, continuity and stability/sustainability.
By owning the transition process, Rwandans would also avoid our constitutional and democratic processes being determined or influenced by outsiders as, indeed, has begun to happen.
What happens after 2017 (end of President Kagame’s second term) has been with us for quite a while – as far back as 2003, but more pronounced since 2010. This has come mainly from foreigners. Outsiders have isolated only one element – change – and framed the debate around it in lazy, simplistic terms, around the issue of one individual leaving power as if that was the most important choice Rwandans must make.
The issue has been reduced to a discussion about a possible third term for the incumbent. The argument is: It’s what happens in most of Africa, isn’t it?
No Sir. It’s not that simple and this is Rwanda. Here things happen differently. The choice for Rwandans is not just about Kagame leaving power, but equally about the maintenance of progress that they have made.
In the same naive, but condescending manner, foreign commentators have made change a personal issue, focussing on an individual, the sitting president, and not the people whose stake in that change is completely ignored.
It is therefore imperative that we take the initiative and frame the terms of the transition debate in a manner that suits us and not because we must justify our actions to outsiders.
For Rwandans, the inevitable change that must come in 2017 is not an event, or chance happening, routine or mechanical activity. It must be part of a properly prepared process that balances respect for constitutional demands, with the need to maintain progress and ensure sustainability.
Insistence on this trinity has a basis in recent African history. There are many countries which have succumbed to the clamour for change at the top but gave the other two elements of the trinity short shrift and, not unexpectedly, came apart. Now they have to be put together again by their erstwhile colonisers.
Framing the terms of the debate about post-2017 transition in the manner set out at the RPF meeting has other relevance for Rwanda and perhaps for other African countries. There are things to lose if we fall into the trap of change as routine and forget that it must also be contextualised.
Over the last 19 years, Rwandans have worked on social cohesion with a great degree of success. Rwandans have never felt closer, more united as they are now. They have never had greater opportunities to be what they want to be or do what they want.
This social harmony has been at the root of the remarkable social and economic progress Rwanda has made in less than decades that everyone talks about – even detractors.
These are important advances that must be protected. We cannot afford to see them unravel. And the most effective way to do that is to reframe the transition debate in terms that put change in a wider social and political context.
This is how I understand the now famous homework President Kagame gave to all RPF cadres and not just a few individuals.
Ultimately, it is a national assignment.