Rwanda’s consensual democracy needs a reset

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In the late 1990s, several years after the genocide in Rwanda against the Tutsi community, the country’s new rulers – the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) – held a national dialogue to decide on the form of governance the East African nation should adopt. “Consensual democracy” was chosen as the best option for Rwanda to accelerate development and prevent further ethnic violence.

Subsequently, the constitution was amended to oblige all political parties to be part of and follow the guidelines of an established “political party forum”. While this model managed to secure the stability of the country and laid the ground for economic recovery, it gradually transformed into a system where the ruling RPF dictates terms to other political parties, dominating executive, legislative and judicial power. The few voices that have dared to challenge its methods have been quickly and aggressively silenced.

In response to the many criticisms from foreign partners about its democracy, the country’s government says that Rwandans have made a sovereign decision to choose a form of democracy that appeals to their history and culture while enabling them to achieve social and economic progress.

Today, as we mark the International Day of Democracy, it is a good time to question this system. Can such a model respond to the current concerns of the people when it allows for their civil liberties to be curbed? And has Rwanda’s much-touted economic progress satisfied its needs? After all, the country still has among the lowest per capita incomes in the world. Its human capital index is lower than the average for sub-Saharan Africa, according to the World Bank.  

So far, these conversations have not been had because the tightly controlled system our consensual democracy has morphed into has prevented serious challengers to the ruling party from participating in the political life of their country.

Ahead of the 2003 presidential election, for example, Dr Theoneste Niyitegeka, who took care of many people injured in the 1994 genocide, tried to put forward his candidacy but was rejected. Afterwards, he was charged with the crime of genocide and sentenced to 15 years in prison in 2008.

Another Rwandan public figure who decided to run in the presidential elections, Diane Rwigara, was accused of inciting insurrection and fraudulently obtaining the necessary requirements for her candidacy in 2017. She was arrested and detained for a year before being acquitted of all the charges.

A former university professor, Christopher Kayumba, was arrested last year after announcing the creation of a new political party, the Rwandanese Platform for Democracy.

I myself have also faced repression. In 2010, I returned to Rwanda from exile in the Netherlands with the intention of registering my political party and running in Rwanda’s presidential elections later the same year. Unfortunately, I was quickly charged with “minimising the genocide and spreading rumours” and sentenced to 15 years in prison in a politically motivated trial. I appealed to the African Court of Human and Peoples’ Rights, which ruled that the Rwandan State had violated my right to a fair trial.

In 2018, I was released early by presidential pardon, after eight years of detention, five of which I spent in solitary confinement. In 2019, I created a new political party, DALFA-Umurinzi, which the authorities refuse to officially register.

There are many other politicians, journalists and YouTube users who have expressed opinions that challenged the narrative of the government and have ended up in prison.

It is true that elections are peacefully conducted in Rwanda. That is commendable. However, democracy is not about merely holding elections. True democracy is one in which political minority voices are heard and respected, opponents are not persecuted but allowed to operate freely, and freedom of speech and the press are not suppressed but protected.

Rwanda’s leadership must understand that the political environment in the country has changed over the past 20 years. There are more dissenting voices today in Rwanda than at the time when the RPF and its allies agreed on the country’s current model of democracy. These voices will continue to increase over time. In addition, people under the age of 46 – who were minors or not even born when the civil war and the genocide took place – constitute more than half of the country’s population today.

Opposing and criticising government policies is a natural situation, as all Rwandans cannot share the same opinions. On the contrary, criticism of policies can stimulate creativity in finding solutions to Rwanda’s problems.

Consensual democracy can work – if it is genuinely consensual, where the political minority are heard and their interests protected. For this to happen, Rwandans first need to assume responsibility for the darkest chapters of their history, while recalling their traditional culture of tolerance and mutual respect. The aim of a Rwandan model of democracy must be to truly strengthen reconciliation between citizens so that they can all feel included in the country’s political space. That is essential so that Rwandans can trust that no one is above the law, irrespective of their political views. Only then will Rwandans be able to hold their leaders to account without fear of being prosecuted.

Such a renewed consensual democracy needs a new national dialogue, which includes dissenting voices and civil society organisations from within and outside Rwanda.

The country has a dream: to transform into an upper-middle-income state by 2035 and a high-income state by 2050. However, Rwandans must remember that no resourceless nation has transitioned to a modern, competitive, high-income state without genuine democracy. Rwanda needs to adopt a more inclusive political vision that responds to the country’s current realities – and its future aspirations.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

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