By matthew stein
A homegrown system that places participation and responsibility above criticism
In the majority of countries across the world it is expected for opposition parties to act and speak in a certain manner. Especially during election time, criticism and rebukes, even delivered with vitriol, are accepted. Candidates spend millions and millions of dollars running ads that challenge the character of their opponent, and deliver speech after speech that outlines the potential destabilising consequences of their opponent being elected to power. All of this is conducted in the name of democracy—that overarching term, which no matter how different two countries are, is always expected to mean the same thing.
“I think people are so stuck up on the idea that somehow there is something called democracy and that democracy looks like this,” says Professor Frederick Golooba-Mutebi, a senior research fellow at Uganda’s Makerere Institute of Social Research. “That democracy is supposed to be practiced this way and if you go to a country and you don’t see that then there is no democracy there.”
One country whose image has repeatedly been battered over these expectations is Rwanda. Both the elections that were held in June 2003 and August 2010 have been heavily criticised by international media and human rights organisations alike for suppressing the country’s “real” opposition.
A New York Times editorial, published days after President Kagame garnered 93 percent of the vote in Rwanda’s 2010 presidential election, read that the president had, “made it almost impossible for anyone else to seriously challenge him, much less win…the government prevented the three parties that openly criticized Mr. Kagame from participating in the election.”
Although it is true that three parties—the United Democratic Forces (FDU-Inkingi), the Ideal Socialist Party (PS-Imberakuri) and the Democratic Green Party—were not able to participate in the elections, the reasons behind their disqualification were largely misunderstood, and as is often the case when evaluating events on this continent, failed to appreciate the situation’s context.
It is not a secret in Rwanda that opposition parties, at least is the conventional sense, do not exist. Dr. Vincent Biruta, a member of the Social Democratic Party (PSD) and the current president of the Rwanda Senate, underscored in an interview with The Independent that despite fielding a candidate and advancing its own program during the last election, the PSD does not view itself as an opposition party. “We are an independent party,” said Biruta. “It’s not right to talk about opposition political parties when talking about the management of the country.”
This mindset does not belong to the PSD alone. Rather it is ingrained into how the Rwandan political system is structured and how it subsequently governs. Stemming from the protocols agreed to in the Arusha Accords—signed on August 4, 1993 by the National Republican Movement for Democracy and Development (MRND), the governing party at the time, and all other relevant political parties, including the RPF—no single party in the country, regardless of the margin of their victory, is permitted to govern alone.
This principle was further cemented, explains Dr. Golooba, in the aftermath of the genocide. “They decided to pull away from adversarial politics and opted for power sharing arrangements in which the dominant party was obliged to share power with other parties provided they did not espouse ideas of ethnic divisionism.”
Today in Rwanda the position of the president, the prime minister, the president of the Senate, the speaker of Parliament and the president of the Supreme Court need to be divided amongst different political parties and no one party is allowed to occupy more than one position.
Moreover, explains Dr. Golooba, all legally registered political parties are represented by four members in the Forum for Political Parties, a decision-making organ that exists outside of parliament, and which settles the country’s most contentious issues. “Decisions there are made on the basis of consensus,” says Golooba. “It will be discussed and discussed again and again until all parties harmonise their position.”
The product of this, says Golooba, is a system of government where all parties participate and take responsibility for the country’s decisions. Any party that in turn criticises these decisions and their consequent outcomes during the election is essentially criticising themselves.
“In Rwanda the opposition doesn’t criticise,” says journalist Magnus Mazimpaka. “However, they could say they have certain policies that the RPF doesn’t have.”
One area that is off limits to all parties is ethnicity. “Discussing these things publically is seen as incitement,” says Golooba. “But the Rwandan government also goes out of its way to build a system that is equitable and that is solving the whole issue of dominance of one group against the other.”
Golooba says the charge that Hutu’s are being marginalised in the government is invalid and points to research that he conducted that showed that Rwanda’s cabinets between 1994 and 2006 were consistently dominated numerically by Hutus.
Criticisms from the United Kingdom’s Telegraph newspaper, which allege, “there are Hutu members and ministers in Kagame’s ruling party…but the inner circle is all Tutsi,” also seem hard to fathom within Rwanda’s political structure.
“That is nonsense,” says Independent Joseph Habineza the minister for Sports and Culture. “The president listens to everybody. We have a lot of meetings and every decision is made through consultations.”
Nevertheless, politicians such as Victoire Ingabire, the leader of the unregistered FDU, still made ethnicity the platform for her 2010 presidential bid when she returned to Rwanda from exile in the Netherlands in January 2010.
Upon her return she made numerous statements including a reference at the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre that the memorial, “only stops at the genocide committed against Tutsis; there is still another that concerns the massacres committed against Hutus.” The next day, she visited the grave of Dominique Mbonyumutwa, one of the architects of PARMEHUTU, an extremist Hutu party that sought to construct a Rwandan republic of solely Hutus.
“RPF officials have told me that if Ingabire had come back to the country saying she wants to build on the gains made,” says Golooba, “there would have been no problem. But her attempt to exploit ethnic differences put her into trouble.”
Ingabire was arrested on April 21 on charges of denying the genocide and collaborating with a terrorist organisation—a charge that authorities have since attempted to validate through witness testimony and Western Union records documenting money transfers from Ingabire to members of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), a terrorist group based in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Ethnicity has also been at the root of the arrest and detention of Bernard Ntaganda, the leader of the PS-Imberakuri. After being charged with peddling ethnic divisionism in December 2009, Ntaganda was arrested on June 24, 2010 for “divisions based on ethnicity, gathering people without permission, creating groups of people that are suspected of being criminals and attempted murder,” according to Rwandan Police spokesman Eric Kayiranga.
In fact, on June 24, the day President Kagame presented his papers to the National Election Commission for re-election, 20 to 30 people were confirmed by Kayiranga to have been arrested for causing disorder.
Such events have led human rights groups and media outlets to accuse Kagame of suppression. The government has said the reports often lack context. For instance, when Ntaganda appeared in court on July 9 with nine other opposition figures accused of terrorism and unlawful gathering, he was the only one that was not granted bail. Reports also failed to mention that members of Ntaganda’s own party had months earlier removed him from the helm for allegedly promoting divisionism and aligning with people who were causing instability in the country.
Unlike the PS-Imberakuri or the FDU, the Democratic Green Party was prevented from participating in the elections because they had allegedly not submitted the necessary paperwork on time. The party rejects this claim. However the interior ministry, the body responsible for receiving party applications, firmly stands by it. Either way, it is hard to say how much support the Greens would have garnered had they been allowed to participate. Green Party Chairman Frank Habineza believes the party would have fared well: “We have support from all different levels of the Rwandan society,” he says citing Green party structures in all of Rwanda’s 30 districts and at least 1500 delegates.
Rwandans who spoke with The Independent admitted to knowing all of the country’s political parties and their relevant platforms, but were hesitant to say whether they would have voted Green had the party been allowed to contest.
Regardless of the support a political party may command, until it can advance a united voice that stays clear of stocking ethnic divisions, it will continue to remain outside Rwanda’s unique and sensitive political structure. Some, especially in the west, may continue to label this suppression, but most Rwandans, the individuals who actually live within this framework and understand the dramatic implications adversarial politics can release, appear comfortable with it.
In fact in 2003, according to Dr. Golooba, during a countrywide consultation on the composition of a new constitution, the overwhelming majority of Rwandans argued for the outright banning of political parties. “The argument was that the elites who fought in political parties would go and fight each other for power in Kigali and then they would bring their fights to the countryside and incite people to kill each other.” The RPF, however, rejected governing in the absence of a multiparty system because it felt it went against the spirit of the Arusha Accords.
Under the current political structure, order has been maintained and economic and social development spurred. Although there are undoubtedly outstanding issues to be resolved, Rwandans in general are working, they’re studying, they’re online, and in some parts of the country, under the guidance of the government, they are finding a way to live side by side with their sworn enemies of yesterday in peace. Now, what kind of opposition would challenge that?