On my previous visits to Rwanda over recent years, I have either been supporting specific projects managed by the Hunter or Clinton Foundations, or by other international NGO’s, or meeting the President to discuss global challenges: education, conflict, development.
So Friday 24 May, the first full day of our APPG visit was particularly interesting.
Meeting local civil society – human rights groups in the main – and a variety of Parliamentarians from different parties, exposed all of us to the dynamics of Rwandan politics, the depth of the historic inter-relationship with the Democratic Republic of the Congo next door and the delicate balance between developing democracy and never returning to the horrors of the 1994 genocide.
Rwanda is about the size of Wales, with a population of around 11 million. The Parliament of Rwanda has two Chambers – the Chamber of Deputies with 80 members and the Senate with 26. It is governed by a coalition led by the Rwanda Patriotic Front; itself led by President Paul Kagame.
When agreeing a new post-genocide constitution, the RPF and others built in safeguards to try and avoid the divisions of the past and develop a new politics. Rwanda, partly due to quotas, now has more women in Parliament and in the Cabinet than any other country. The Speaker of the Chamber of Deputies and the President of the Senate are both from out with the winning party. A National Political Parties Forum brings together all registered parties, winners and losers, to compromise and develop consensus around government policy.
I was certainly surprised by the extent of effort to share power, and the relatively positive comments of the opposition parties.
Often, much too often, when meeting politicians anywhere strong opinions are aggressively expressed as fact without any historical context or sophisticated justification.
Today, the opposite has been the case, sometimes to the point of boring repetition. The inter-relationship between Congo and Rwanda goes back centuries: modern boundaries only created by the European colonial powers when sharing out the continent at the end of the 19th Century. So family and commercial relationships cross those borders.
In Eastern DRC, a large minority are ‘Rwandafone’ by language and culture, yet President Mobutu in 1980’s Congo (then called Zaire) legislated for citizenship of all groups, but excluded these folks from recognition. This is clearly still a grievance today. And since the 1994 genocide, many of those responsible have lived over the border in DRC posing a perceived threat to the new stability of Rwanda.
Most of those we met from government, opposition parties and the EU Ambassador were strongly of the view that the issues in Eastern DRC needed an internal political solution, that it was not in Rwanda’s interests to destabilize and that Rwanda were not involved. Some others disagreed, but I think we were all frankly disappointed in the mistakes quoted from the UN ‘Experts’ Report and we feel better educated now.
And so to ‘political space’ – and hearing the two sides of the argument. Well, actually, maybe more than two now.
Viewed from a distance, there seem to be those that support the government and tolerate restrictions on freedom of speech because of the genocide and the need for national unity. And then those who oppose it and want full freedoms even if that means the ability to spread ethnic tensions.
But as ever, the situation is more complex. Some civic and campaign groups do perceive the government to be at the centre of a conspiracy to hold and abuse power. Others have criticisms but do find ways to work with the government ministers to make changes, convinced that capacity and tradition are the main obstacles.
Opposition groups field candidates and criticise to differing degrees but in the main work together after elections to deliver results. The RPF point to the fact that they use the checks and balances in the constitution to share power and build national consensus.
Some Ambassadors explain the restrictions on hate speech and political organisation as a determined effort to avoid the conditions of genocide again. Others hope for more speedy change and more openness.
The 1994 slaughter has been described as the popular genocide. An elected government, whipping up people to kill neighbours and friends. Spreading hatred and fear. Over 800,000 killed in 100 days – with basic weapons, one by one.
In all democratic political systems, activists and commentators will stress those points that matter most to them, and those they have to impress. But the truth lies somewhere between all these opinions. I suspect that is the case in Rwanda too.
I cannot speak for all our delegation, but even after visiting here many times before, I understand much better now that the reasons behind Rwanda’s development go further than strong leadership. And while I hope that political and other freedoms of expression can continue to develop and grow, I hope they do so without threatening this proud nation and the peace they so desire.