RPF at 35: Taking stock, and peering into the future

RPF at 35: Taking stock, and peering into the future
RPF at 35: Taking stock, and peering into the future

Africa-Press – Rwanda. On April 1 and 2, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), Rwanda’s leading and largest political party or movement, as its members prefer to call it, celebrated its 35th anniversary. There is nothing remarkable about political parties throwing parties and their members and supporters engaging in rounds of, sometimes drunken, self-congratulatory merry-making. In Africa, political parties tend to be far bigger on pomp and circumstance than on focused pursuit of objectives that would infuse real meaning into the lives of the people they lead or aspire to lead. The RPF is somewhat different. There are many reasons for this. Perhaps the most important is that, right from its founding in 1987, it set big tasks for itself: advocating and fighting for exiled Rwandans to return home. Most of the exiles had lived outside their country for well over 30 years. Their descendants, a far larger number than the original exiles, had never set foot in the land of their forefathers. Meanwhile, back in Rwanda, the government of the day was not prepared to countenance the possibility of their return.

The determination on both sides eventually led to war. The RPF was determined to enable the refugees who wanted to return and live in their country to do so. Meanwhile the government sought to encourage the refugees to stay where they were and, for those who had not yet naturalised, seek citizenship. The war that resulted devastated the country, destroyed communities and families, and tore up the social fabric. There were also the decades of division among different categories of the population and the divisive propaganda on which they had been fed. After the war and genocide against the Tutsi, the RPF and the government it established had to reckon with these challenges.

Alongside efforts to reconstruct the country and revamp the economy, much time and energy had to be invested in administering justice and reconciling the population. Also important was ensuring that the pre-genocide divisions and contestations among the political elite did not resurface and derail the reconstruction process. In the meantime, the insurgency which had erupted in the north of the country had also to be tackled, as was the security threat posed by elements of the former government army who had escaped to the then Zaire and were organising to launch attacks against the country. Dealing with all these challenges called for constant vigilance which in turn demanded high levels of organisation.

After more than a quarter of a century in power, there is every reason for the RPF to be proud of the achievements the government it leads has registered against numerous odds, which to some observers seemed to be insurmountable. It is fitting to highlight some of the achievements. These include gains in life expectancy, literacy, food security, enrolment at primary and secondary school levels, health insurance coverage and associated access to health services, housing and infrastructure development across a wide array of domains, security of person and property, access to justice, rule of law, accountability, and popular participation in decision making.

The 35th anniversary commemoration was dedicated to looking back to the journeys that both the RPF and the country have travelled since 1987 and 1994 respectively, what made those journeys possible, and what the future portends for them, and for Africa more widely, as they all grapple with geopolitical and other challenges that the world is throwing at them. THE journey so far travelled would have been that more difficult to cover without the help of friends from near and wide. The role of friends was evident in the range of invited guests present, and those who for one reason or another could not make it to Kigali. The role of Rwanda’s other political parties and organisations was evident in the attendance of their leaders who, alongside those of the RPF, have ensured that the country remains stable and the government focused on building “the Rwanda we all want” (Urwanda twifuza), rather than on adversarial contestations that distract many governments from discharging their responsibilities, diverting their attention and energies to ensuring they win the next elections and continue locking other actors out of decision making.

A key highlight of the commemoration was the election of new office bearers to take the country forward, as some of its senior leaders over the last two decades walked off into well-deserved and quietly anticipated retirement. Internal elections in some political parties in Africa are rowdy, bad-tempered, divisive and often corruption-ridden events. The rowdiness stems from free-for-all contestations in which all and sundry are free to throw their hut into the ring, canvass for support, all of which adds up to really noisy and often chaotic affairs. But also, in this free-for-all approach lie the seeds of divisiveness and corruption. Divisive because contests can easily degenerate and do usually degenerate into coalitions built around affiliation to this or that group from this or that region or part of the country. They are prone to corruption because in some cases, candidates use money and gifts to entice people to vote for them. The RPF elections were a classic case of ‘managed’ or ‘controlled’ democracy. Someone walking into the room without knowing in advance what was going on, couldn’t possibly imagine there was an election about to be held.

For each of the vacant positions, positions, someone would nominate someone else, giving reasons why they suited to leadership. The nominated candidates would have to accept the nomination, giving a short speech if they chose to. For the positions of chairperson, vice-chairperson and secretary-general, a senior cadre stood up, named their favoured candidate, explained in detail why he or she was ‘the right candidate’, followed by acceptance of the nomination by the said candidate. A few individuals nominated themselves, one for party chairman, others for the rest. Clearly, they were going through the motions, as it were. From where I was sitting, it was evident that the seriousness with which the senior cadre doing the nomination spoke, the length to which they went to explain why their candidate was ‘the right one’ and the passion with which they did so, was sufficient to convince the party’s rank and file that, indeed, the candidate was the person to vote for. That they were all subsequently elected with large majorities leaves no doubt about this. One could get pedantic about how democratic this is, and a good debate could be had about it. However, there is no denying that, at least for the top three positions, the process, a complex combination of selection and election, produces leaders with the desired attributes and experience. There is no gambling of the kind seen in electoral processes where elections could land a political party with incompetent big talkers occupying positions for which they lack capacity.

After the elections, party chairman, President Paul Kagame, remained almost the only constant, other officials having bowed out. Later on, that evening, he spoke about his discomfort at being always asked to continue leading and challenged the party to think seriously about a future without him. The speech seemed to elicit discomfort from many in his audience who, it seems, are torn between letting him go and nervousness about a future without him at the helm. As the RPF embarks on its 36th year of existence and the country enters the 30th year since efforts to build a ‘New Rwanda’ began it is hardly farfetched to argue that the future of both is intimately intertwined.


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