By Andrew M. Mwenda
It is August 2 and I am attending an election campaign rally by Paul Kagame, presidential candidate for the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). Many people are wearing Kagame and his party campaign souvenirs. However, one man, Jack Mutabazi, 52, a peasant and resident of rural Bugesera, stands out. He is emotionally involved in cheering Kagame dancing, jumping up and down, and singing at the top of his voice: ‘Kagame wachu, tuza kumutoraa (Kagame is ours; we are going to vote for him).
Many people at these rallies are ecstatic, some jubilant and a few are curious onlookers. Mutabazi later tells me he is Hutu and lived through (and possibly participated in ‘ although I deliberately do not ask) the genocide. I tell him I am a foreign journalist seeking to know what animates the campaigns. He turns immediately to answer my questions.
Mutabazi tells me that he is a health mobiliser, a person appointed by the government to rally fellow villagers to sign up for medical insurance. ‘The government gave me this mobile phone,’ he says as he pulls out this gadget that represents entry into modernity in rural Africa, ‘and I am given a stipend to walk through villages signing up people for Mutuelle de Sante. I have signed up 391 people in my village ‘ and it is 100 percent success.’
Mutuelle de Sante is French for Mutual Insurance’an innovative health insurance scheme designed by the government of Rwanda to get the poorest citizens to access medical care. Every Rwandan citizen pays RwF 1,000 per year for this insurance. When someone falls ill, they can go to any hospital, get treated and pay only 10 percent of the cost. The poorest citizens of Rwanda get a certificate of inability to pay from their local village, which entitles them to free medical attention.
The ease with which Mutabazi rattles off his figures is impressive and partly a common feature of Rwandan society. He also tells me his job is to mobilise sick people to go to hospitals instead of going to traditional healers or getting treatment from unregistered medical practitioners. He has achieved 100 percent success in this too. But why support him with an intoxicated frenzy, I ask.
‘You do not understand what this man [Kagame] has done for us ordinary Rwandans,’ he answers from the top of his voice, stopping momentarily to breathe deeply. He begins to speak as if addressing a political rally. ‘He has forgiven those who participated in the genocide. I have seven children and all of them go to school for free. He has given us health insurance, farmers are getting cows, our roads are good and we are also getting free iron sheets. We had not seen a president like this before.’
By now, a small crowd of curious onlookers has turned away from the rally and are surrounding us. I had taken note of Beatrice Nyirimana, 32, who had been dancing with a wild jig, her face beaming and her mouth constantly open with an ecstatic smile. She tells me that she is a Hutu with confidence and openness uncharacteristic of Rwandans here. People in Rwanda feel shy or afraid or both to talk about their ethnicity. It seems to bring discomfort when you ask them about it.
‘I support Mzee Kagame because he has liberated women from oppression,’ she says passionately at the top of her voice. ‘My husband used to beat me. But the president told us that we should report such men to local authorities. So I did and he was apprehended. From thence he stopped beating me.’ Nyirimana immediately turned to her friend who was giggling shyly next to her. The friend had also been a victim of domestic violence but after reporting her husband to local authorities, a reprimand was given and the domestic violence ended.
Nyirimana’s husband later abandoned her but not before he sold their family land. He was later found to have escaped because he had been convicted of being an accessory to genocide. Through the government’s land program, Nyirimana was given a plot of land for free and told if she builds herself a house, the government, as per their policy to help single and vulnerable women, would provide her with free iron sheets for the roof. ‘Mzee is for women’s emancipation,’ she says with satisfaction and goes back to chanting: Kagame wachu, tuza kumutora.
Nyirimana’s enthusiasm is a feeling I have encountered at all Kagame rallies ‘ ordinary men, women and youths singing and dancing wildly. For those who covered the campaign, it was not surprising that Kagame got 93 percent of the vote, an ‘abnormal’ percentage in competitive democratic elections. But his opponents could hardly get a crowd of 500 at their rallies. Kagame’s were running above 100,000.
The men at these rallies would exercise some restraint and perhaps some self-interested calculation as well. But for many women the love and adoration of Kagame is unmistakable; when he jumps over the security barriers to shake hands with them and to dance, they run wild. Yes he is a handsome and charming man, but possibly they like in him the firmness of his character; Kagame can be stern, a quality that gives him an authoritarian reputation. But when he is defending those oppressed by patriarchal traditions, the beneficiaries (women and children) see him as a liberator.
Given the general perceptions about antagonism between Hutus and Tutsis, one wonders whether ordinary people, who are mainly Hutu at these rallies, are faking love for Kagame or are genuinely expressing their feelings. Sure, some may be faking it but many are being genuine. The story of deeply entrenched primordial hatreds among African ethnic groups is one of those grand distortions of our history by mainly Western sociologists and political anthologists that has left an indelible mark on the perception of Africans. Rwandan politics appears to confound that.
At many of his campaign rallies, I have heard Kagame say: ‘There are no Hutus, Tutsis and Twa in Rwanda, we are all Rwandans.’ Every time, the crowd has responded with wild applause. Previous regimes in Rwanda had promoted the ideology of Hutu power with unprecedented effectiveness and had succeeded beyond measure. Post genocide Rwanda has been trying to burry these ethnic demons. Does such applause suggest that it is succeeding? It may be too early to tell. Rwanda’s challenge is to sustain this momentum to the next generations.
What seems important is that many analysts of Rwanda will tell you that the society here has a strong tendency to buy into what its rulers tell it to do. Even though such cultural stereotyping can be misleading, it may hold some water in this Central African nation. The effectiveness with which the state that Kagame over-threw mobilised ordinary civilians to pick machetes and kill their friends, neighbours, in-laws and relatives, is one of those complex social actions that lends credence to claims of a culture that is obedient to power.
Rwandan society has proved to have an unusual deference to power and if this history holds true, it can also work the other way: leaders can actively promote national unity and succeed. Therefore, as ordinary people cheer Kagame’s insistence on a common Rwandan identity, is it a reflection of the success of RPF’s ideology? It is possible that because the current leadership has fought hard to de-emphasise identity, the consciousness of a common Rwandanese is growing.
However, it is not only Kagame who is surprising in this election; it is in his interest to promote a pan-Rwandan identity because his Tutsi ethnic base cannot help him win an election.
The interesting person is the candidate for the opposition Social Democratic Party (PSD), Dr. Jean Damascene Ntawukuriryayo, a prominent Hutu politician. He is also the deputy speaker of the chamber of deputies (lower chamber of the parliament), a moderate and a well educated man with a PhD. Ntawukuriryayo was in Rwanda in the early 1990s and belongs to the few moderates who did not participate in the genocide.
Apparently, Presidential Advisor Prof. Manase Nshutu told me, being tall gave Ntawukuriryayo a ‘Tutsi look’, a factor that his opponents used to undermine him by calling him a Tutsi. It is possible this stereotyping gave Ntawukuriryayo an insight into the dangers of ethnic politics and may have, together with his level of education and personal values, given him an anti-ethnic political stance. Today, he runs a campaign purely on public policy issues of the social democratic kind that are dear to his heart.
Ntawukuriryayo served as minister in the Kagame-led coalition government and therefore claims part of the credit for RPF’s achievements. But he adds an important twist: while the country has made a lot of progress, it can do even better. He claims that although RPF is the one claiming kudos for Mutuelle de Sant, it was actually his party’s idea that the national unity government simply implemented. ‘Because RPF is the leader of the coalition government,’ Ntawukuriryayo says, ‘people tend to associate all government success with it.’
His campaign manager, Stanislus Kamanzi, is an MP and a sophisticated Rwandan. He is currently Minister for Environment and Lands in Kagame’s government of national unity. According to Kamanzi, PSD aims to identify key areas where it can make ‘quick wins’. One such area is agriculture where his candidate promises to increase the sectoral budget by 10 percent. His party also promises to take primary schools up to village level and increase the wages of teachers. It is rare to find a campaign in Africa that is fought purely on issues and not ethnic identity.
The choice to focus on public policy issues is a rule rigorously enforced by the RFP; any slight deviation towards ethnicity and you are disqualified. This way, RPF has created such insurmountable fear in Rwandans in regard to talking about ethnicity to the extent that it gets embroiled in apparent contradiction. For example, RPF recently changed the name of the genocide from the ‘Rwandan genocide’ to the ‘Tutsi genocide.’ Because its legitimacy is partly based on having ended genocide, RPF has constantly used the genocide to promote itself politically. In the process, it has kept ethnic identity at the heart of political discourse even though it argues against it.
However, it is also possible that those politicians like Ntawukuriryayo and Kamanzi who choose to focus on public policy as a campaign platform, also recognise the dangers Rwanda faces from ethnic politics. But in making this choice they do not endear themselves to local and international media who are looking for a political brawl. Politicians in the West can fight over public policy issues like healthcare. That is politics for ‘civilised people’. Africans are expected to fight over identity. In pitching their campaign on public policy issues, the PSD has made itself look like pretenders in the race’Kagame’s auxiliaries so to speak.
As I have travelled across the breadth of the country following different candidates, it is clear to me that Rwandans are not very boisterous. A journalist hungry for an animated political comment cannot easily get many people to open up and speak their minds. For those who ignore specificity, they conclude that this is because the RPF and Kagame have suffocated free speech. Those who know Rwanda well, however, will tell you that this is a major character trait of Rwandans. My view is that the answer lies in both these and other factors.
It could be that the 500 years of strong and authoritarian states since pre-colonial times, under colonial rule and in the post colonial period has given Rwandans a distinct deference to authority. Rwandans seem obedient to a fault. For example, on Aug. 4, I drove from Kigali to Kirehe near the border with Tanzania. I was shocked at the masses of people who were walking on foot to go attend Kagame’s rally there. Some people were walking 10km to the rally site ‘ all in disciplined calmness.
At Kagame’s rallies, I was continuously struck by the level and effectiveness of organisation. First, multitudes of people would be hosted in a large ground divided into sections, complete with barriers and pathways, to allow someone to walk easily through the crowd. There would be huge drinking water tanks on all the four corners. On every side there would also be a first aid tent teaming with paramedics and ambulances to evacuate anyone taken ill. Youth volunteers would keep combing the crowd looking for the young, the elderly and the disabled to take them to more appropriate places.
This level of organisation is only made possible by the obedience of ordinary Rwandans to what the authorities have told them. Even when ecstatic, people do not break police barriers to surge forward to touch the candidate. They do it in a disciplined way. This is partly because the police and local administration police are deployed at every turn. But it is also because people seem to respect rules in this country. The Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Defence, Jack Nziza, told me that even under former President Juvenal Habyarimana, this capacity for mobilisation existed.
‘Rwanda has always had a strong state,’ Nziza said wistfully. ‘The problem was that Habyarimana did not employ this vital national asset for development but largely for remaining in power. Towards the end, he used it to mobilise people to kill their neighbours along ethnic lines. The genocide was largely successful because of effective mobilisation by the state.’
It was a powerful insight but one which also goes the other way; If the RPF seeks to undermine free expression, it is easy for them to secure compliance from the population. Rwanda enjoys the rare capacity of a state in Africa that has unprecedented capacity to penetrate society and secure public compliance with its desires.
John Bosco Nivuyekure, 28, is a Hutu peasant in Ngoma, Rwanda. I met him at a poorly attended rally of Ntawurikuryayo on Aug.7. He was soft spoken, laid back and expressed little enthusiasm in his candidate while others sang, danced and chanted support for Ntawurikuriryayo. Nivuyekure said he joined PSD because the party stands for justice, development and social welfare. He said he had heard all this over radio and looked for its leaders to register him.
When I asked why there were so few people out to support the PSD Nivuyekure answered that people who do not support RPF are afraid to be seen publicly. ‘If you are seen to support other political parties,’ he told me, ‘the local leaders who are largely RPF will begin to discriminate against you. They will not attend to your problems if you go to them.’
One of the greatest achievements Rwanda has registered over the last ten years is the impersonal application of public policy in the provision of public services like healthcare, education and agricultural extension. So I asked Nivuyekure if his children are stopped from going to school or his family is denied fertilizers or Mutuelle de Sant. He said the authorities cannot do that. However, he insisted that the forms of discriminating against opposition supporters are not overt but subtle. For instance, if an ordinary person needed ‘special assistance’ from local leaders that goes beyond public services, they will not easily be attended to.
However, when pressed, he was unable to pinpoint a specific item in this ‘special assistance’ because some over enthusiastic ‘RPF-looking’ election official came asking for our accreditation, which he did not have. Nivuyekure suspected the ‘election official’ actually to be a government spy.Â
Sam Mutabaruka is another PSD supporter I met at Ntawukuriryayo rally in Bugesera. Hutu and 33 years, he had the look of an educated and enlightened man. He told me that at the top, leaders work together in a government of national unity. However, people and their leaders at the local level do not understand this. He said that RPF leaders at the local level want to please their bosses in Kigali by showing that everyone in their area supports Kagame. So they use subtle ways to induce people to believe that if you are not in RPF, you will not be a beneficiary of government programs.
‘This tendency needs not be dictated by the centre,’ Mutabaruka told me pensively. ‘It is a product of the incentives the political process has created. At the centre we have the political parties’ forum where these issues are raised. The other parties have presented this matter to the forum. That is why PSD wants power-sharing to begin at village level. This is important to undermine the tendency of lower level cadres to use subtle ways to induce people to join RPF. However, RPF has been dragging its feet on this matter because they are profiting from the current situation.’
In the end, Kagame romped the election with 93 percent of the vote and as a result got himself into a situation where he looked like he had presided over an election reminiscent of dictators who ‘win’ 99 percent at the polls. Later, when I asked the President what he thought of this comparison he said if his party is that strong and can win like that, he does not care what others think of him. That is for the people of Rwanda to decide.
Yet the size of Kagame’s victory only reflects the complexity of Rwanda’s politics. An election can have higher competitiveness if the candidates are free to tap into existing discontent as a resource to garner votes. The Rwandan state under Kagame has been effective in almost all the policy issues around which to organise opposition to it: in fighting corruption, in providing quality health, agricultural extension, education services and in building schools, hospitals and roads.
However, the major issue around which an opposition candidate can build a strong profile seems ethnicity, a subject that is legitimately prohibited in this country. In other words, the opposition candidates have been forced (or have agreed) to run on issues where Kagame holds all the aces. In this context, the contest was a no contest from the word go. But this also shows the major weakness facing opposition movements in countries that have functional public services ‘ that beyond grievances built around ethnicity, it is difficult to construct credible opposition politics.