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Given Rwanda’s history, Commonwealth impressed with elections -Ahmed Salim

By Andrew M. Mwenda

The former Tanzanian Prime Minister sat down with The Independent’s Managing Editor Andrew Mwenda to discuss the recent Rwanda elections. Salim was sent to Rwanda to lead the Commonwealth Observer Group (COG) to observe preparations for the election, assess the process and make future recommendations.

As the head of the commonwealth observer team in Rwanda, what is your assessment of the campaign process?

The campaign was interesting. The focus was more on the incumbent he pulled much bigger crowds wherever he went and the opposition did not have the same platform. But that is not something abnormal. The polling went extremely well in terms of identification of the polling stations, the register of voters, the secrecy of the ballot, and again the security of the place. Technically, much of the work that had to be done was done. The counting at the polling stations went very well. We were quite satisfied with the transparency of it all. Of course there were shortcomings; some of the polling officers did not take the trouble to ensure that the ballots that were not used were kept in a secure place. They didn’t mind much about the spoilt ballots. But by and large the process was good.

What did they do with the spoilt ballots?

They put them together, identified them, and said how many had got spoilt for so and so. Then all of them were put together in the ballot box. That is what we saw. As for the technical aspect of it all, while the counting at the polling station went well, frankly, it wasn’t that well as far as the consolidating the votes are concerned. In fact we had our people in the districts who had not even been appraised of the outcome of the voting. So whereas the procedure is clear that the thing will go to the centre and from the center to the district, and then to the national, I think something as far as the movement is concerned, took unduly long.

Many critics of the government argue there was no electoral competition. Most of the serious candidates were eliminated from the race and the opposition candidates that remained were actually escorts of Kagame.

This notion of escorts is only said by those who are criticizing him. In respect to Kagame, I think we need to go back to the history of this country. These people who are the Liberal party, the Socialist party, they are among those who suffered in the genocide. They formed an alliance arising from the Arusha accord. As political entities they were there. The difference is they decided to form an alliance with RPF. When you call them escorts€”and I wouldn’t call them that€”but they definitely were not critical opponents of the government. I don’t know how credible they were; you can only assess someone’s credibility when he or she is operating in the field. I know that three political parties went to register and they were denied either for legal reasons or for an institute reason. We recently met one of them, the green party, and they gave us a briefing of their position. From what we saw from this party, we felt that since they are not connected in the atrocities or involved with the past and so on, they could have been registered. However, there may be other reasons and the state can make an explanation. Ideally from our point of view, and we said that on our statement very clearly, in situations like this it is in the interest of the democratic dispensation to be as inclusive as possible. We hope that this will be the case in the future. However we are also saying clearly that in doing so one has to take into account the cautious approach of the nation based on its own historical experience. This country went through genocide and genocide is not a joke. Over one million people were killed and we have some people who are not even reconciled that people were killed. We have to be cautious; we have to make sure that the things that bring about such hatred, such animosity and confrontation are not allowed to materialize. When we talk of balancing, we are talking of the need to be cautious. There should be no repetition; we should not give one an opportunity, including to the media, given their history. But the other extreme is balance that ensures that there is a degree of inclusivity in the process. That’s what makes the process of democratic dispensation thrive.

Did you feel that the mass media here played a strong and independent role as a non partisan observer of the electoral process? Did you feel that there was sufficient public debate on the electoral process and the candidates?

First we have been here for seven days. So whatever happened could have happened before. In these seven days, we were only exposed to the English media and most of what is going on is in Kinyarwanda and that is where critical decisions are made and critical thinking is going on. For example, New Times had more extensive coverage to the incumbent than the opposition. But the government media, including radio and television, from what we saw, went out of the way to make sure that they gave some space for the different political views of those who were contesting.

President Kagame, as you said, was attracting large crowds. His critics are saying rallies of the opposition were less attended because there was widespread fear in this country that if you show up at the opposition rally you will be labeled and victimized.

Don`t you think that is contradictory in terms? On the one hand all these opposition say they are part of the alliance therefore they are just escorts of president Kagame. On the other hand people say if you go in that party [Kagame will attack you]. I think that is ridiculous. I don’t buy that. If you support this opposition you are considered to be an enemy of the state. Everybody in the press is saying the opposition are just escorts the president. But you are either this or the other; you can’t be both. It is not unique for Rwanda that the ruling party had a dominant position in the campaign. Is it different in any other country?

Did you talk to the other opposition candidates about their feelings towards the process?

Those candidates who came to see us were all satisfied. We met with the Social Democratic Party (PSD), and we met with the Liberal party. The lady from the PPC party didn`t come. The people who were not satisfied were the other opposition. For example, we met with the chairman of the green party and he was very clear in his reservations. He was also very polite. He is not one of those opposition who come out and start abusing.

During the campaign process I did not hear candidates criticizing the other. They seemed to focus their messages on what they planned to do rather than criticize what the other candidate was saying or doing. Did you find that odd?

It is the style. It is not common to have that experience. But when you have a situation where you talk of an alliance, parties in an alliance will always be more careful and cautious of what they criticize. We are going through that experience in Tanzania and Zanzibar and other parts of Tanzania where there is going to be a government of national unity after the elections. And even now there has been a transformation in the country from a situation where there has always been abuses and counter abuse from the ruling party CCM, where I belong, and the Civic United Front, which is extremely strong in Zanzibar. Every time there is a rally, either by CCM or the CUF, the language is different. Since November last year, the language has been toned down. People are polite and are talking about nation building.

This is not something we should see as a problem?

I am saying it is something that is happening in Rwanda. I cannot generalize that what is happening in Rwanda may also happen elsewhere. But I am saying within the context when you have political parties who are contesting and who are at the same time part of an understanding, you cannot expect the robust, polemical, diatribe coming out from any of these parties.

When you moved around the Kagame campaigns, did you get the sense that the crowds were there out of fear rather than out of support for the president.

o not underestimate people’s intelligence. These are not cows. These are human beings. Let’s say there was a certain level of intimidation. Why did they turn up in such large numbers for the president? Were they also intimidated to vote? Ok may be they were forced to go there, by the police and all that. But what happens when they have to vote in the secrecy of the ballot? How come they vote for Kagame? And there was a case where I went and people did not vote or they voted for someone else. I think there are limits and it would be unfortunate to underestimate the desires or the talent of the people of Rwanda€¦I don’t buy the idea that the people of Rwanda, all these crowds that went to Gasabo were not deeply enthusiastic. We went right into the masses and we saw their enthusiasm and how they reacted to what Kagame was saying. The accuracy we can make about this thing is to also be sufficiently generous to be able to understand the people of Rwanda can make up their mind.

Are you concerned that it has taken 2 days since the election to announce all the results?

Normally, I would not be concerned because I have seen elections take forever to be announced. And I have seen their system here and they are supposed to announce within a maximum of five days. I must say I am a bit uncomfortable with the fact that the polling went so smoothly and efficiently, yet the consolidation of the results was slow.

In your assessment, was this 93 percent we are hearing reflected at the polling centers?

In most cases where we have been it’s more; in the 25 or 30 constituencies that we visited [out of 47], the results were definitely, absolutely, preponderantly for Kagame.

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