By Andrew M. Mwenda
Why American media should listen to the views of Rwandans about freedom in their country
A month before the Africa-America Summit in Washington DC, President Paul Kagame of Rwanda shuffled his prime minister (who was from the same Rwanda Patriotic Front political party as the president) and replaced him with another from a different political party. It was not big news in Rwanda because power-sharing in that country has been entrenched in the constitution.
Indeed out of the top four positions in Rwanda, Kagame’s RPF only holds the presidency of the country; the Social Democratic Party holds the presidency of the senate and the prime minister slot while the Liberal Party holds the position of speaker of parliament. While such coalition governments are common in Europe and Israel, there aren’t any examples in most of Africa.
This political arrangement has taken the heat out of Rwanda’s electoral process. For example, during election campaigns, competing candidates in Rwanda do not attack each other in an adversarial manner. Campaigns tend to be soft and boring. This has led some observers to claim there is limited political contestation in the country. However, it should be obvious that the power-sharing arrangement in the constitution creates an incentive structure that discourages competing politicians from being adversarial. This is because politicians do not want to antagonise their opponents too deeply given the likelihood that they will serve in the same cabinet.
It was in this context that I read with extreme disbelief an article by David Himbara in politico.com where he makes sweeping allegations against Kagame. Of course Himbara is entitled to his views. But he is not entitled to his own facts. He accuses President Kagame of killing opponents and journalists but adduces no evidence support his allegations. This should have alerted the editors at politico.com of the baselessness of Himbara’s allegations – his claim of having been Kagame’s aide notwithstanding.
Over the last 14 years under President Kagame, Rwanda has emerged from the abyss to become one of the most successful and progressive countries in the world. In a very short period of time, Kagame has reconstructed the state and economy that had literally collapsed and reconciled a society that had been torn apart by genocidal killings. According to data from the IMF, over the last 14 years of Kagame’s presidency, Rwanda has sustained an average economic growth rate of 7.7 percent, making it the 15th fastest growing economy in the world and the 2nd in Africa (if you remove oil exporters from the sample).
Although Rwanda is still a very poor country today, 98 percent of its children go to school, 95 percent of its pregnant women get antenatal care during pregnancy, 97 percent of its mothers give birth in the presence of a medical professional, and 90 percent of its citizens have medical insurance to mention but a few examples.
Rwanda is the only country in the world where women hold a majority of seats (55%) in parliament. Indeed, 53% of members of parliament in Rwanda are former adversaries of Kagame’s RPF who had escaped as refugees to the Democratic Republic of Congo after genocide and returned to the country during the late 1990s under the umbrella of reconciliation.
It is for the above and many other reasons too long to enumerate here that influential global leaders in politics (Bill Clinton and Tony Blair), in business (Bill Gates and Carlos Slim), academia (Michael Porter and Paul Farmer) and religious institutions (Pastor Rick Warren) to mention but a few, have made friendships with President Kagame. That Himbara, who served as a Principle Private Secretary to Kagame chose to ignore all this and instead rely on unsubstantiated gossip and rumour demonstrates his dishonesty.
It is difficult to make the strides as the ones Rwanda has made in an atmosphere of repression and terror. This is especially so in a country without mineral riches.
Rwanda relies on the hard work, innovation and motivation of its people to sustain its impressive rate of economic growth and delivery of public goods and services. You cannot terrorise people to be innovative or to think smart. You need their consent. Kagame has been this successful in large part because he has governed Rwanda through its people’s consent.
All this is not to say Rwanda is a political paradise. There are some people who feel politically excluded and others like Himbara who would like to be president – and therefore willing to make wild claims to gain international attention. There are also laws and political practices that limit personal freedom and intrude on individual liberty. But these challenges are not unique to Rwanda. Every country in the world faces them. There is continuous debate inside Rwanda on how to balance the needs of national security and social cohesion on the one hand and individual freedom on the other.
This debate is currently taking place in the United States in the face of NSA mass surveillance programs, themselves necessitated by the events of 9/11. The same debate is also taking place in Europe and other democracies. This debate is even more important in Rwanda because it is a country where democratic institutions – political parties, civil society organisations, churches and the mass media – were used to turn the population against each other so much so that neighbour killed neighbour and parents killed their children in an orgy that left over one million people dead.
The vast majority of Rwandans, therefore, understand the political and historical context that has necessitated whatever restrictions on their freedom existing in their country. Indeed, no one can provide a better expression of their sense of freedom and achievement than the people of Rwanda themselves. In a July 2014 opinion poll by Gallup, more than 90 percent of Rwandans said they feel free to express their political opinions. This was much higher than American citizens who were asked the same question.
It is therefore obvious that Himbara belongs to the 10 percent. While his voice matters, I would suggest that the voice of 90 percent of Rwandans matters more. Instead, one gets the sense that sections of the media in America want to believe and publish everything negative about Rwanda instead of listening to the voices of the people in Rwanda who speak to American pollsters. One hopes that, one day, publications like politico.com will feature the feelings of Rwandans as well about their sense of freedom.