The Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) on June 17 nominated President Paul Kagame as its presidential candidate in this year’s elections. Although he was unopposed, the RPF still conducted a secret ballot to elect him. Out of 1930 delegates, 1929 voted for Kagame, one vote was spoilt.
I have been wondering how to tell this story from the position of the knowledge that I have as a journalist who has access to decision making processes in Rwanda.
I deal with Rwandans at all levels – from the president to ministers, from high ranking to low ranking military, police and security officials, businesspersons, ordinary citizens, students, civil servants etc.
I can, for example, reveal that the single spoilt vote was cast by Kagame; something he shared with me. The other thing many people outside Rwanda might not know is that nine other political parties in Rwanda were represented at the RPF convention and all of them adopted Kagame as their flag bearer. This is under the National Consultative Forum of Political Organisations, which is designed under the Rwanda constitution as a permanent consultative mechanism to promote dialogue and consultation among political parties on key decisions in the country.
To people outside Rwanda, the idea of one party getting involved in the decision-making of another party sounds choreographed. But this is because most people have deeply entrenched biases and prejudices about how democracy and elections should work. In Rwanda, democracy means working together in unity.
Over the years, I have been liberated from the prejudices that used to inform my analysis of events in Rwanda, and Africa. I now focus on the actual factors that drive particular political decisions.
It is difficult to tell the story of postcolonial Africa, and most especially Rwanda, because every time something happens, people refer to their prejudices instead of the facts.
This confusion is driven largely by the dependence by even African narrators on Western scholars and journalists. The lack of understanding, and sometimes deliberate distortion, is also aided by the inability of major players in key decision making processes in Africa to tell the story of what actually happened. Yet this is the only way the conversations about Rwanda and Africa can shift from speculation on “what must have happened” to “what actually happened.”
Even what President Kagame said in his speech to accept the nomination to be the RPF flag bearer can be baffling to those outside Rwanda. Kagame said he would have preferred not to be running for president. He said, instead, he would have preferred to stand in front of the same audience and pass the leadership to another person. It had not happened, he said, because the RPF, the other political parties and the general citizenry actually asked him (I would say pushed him) to stand.
“I should be standing here today talking about a new leadership but you decided otherwise,” he said.
He added: “The pressure not to run again was less informed and meaningless than the pressure for me to accept it. I had no role in this but to accept it.”
He had accepted to take on the responsibility of being President for another seven years, he said. But he added: I want Rwandans to think about what should be done during these next seven years to resolve the issues that led you to ask me to stay on so that in 2024 I can perform the responsibility of passing on the leadership.
He then challenged young people to aspire for leadership.
“Aspire to be a leader, even a president. But above all, aspire to be a good leader. That’s what Rwandans need and deserve”, he said, suggesting that he is even thinking of a successor as a person who would have been in their early teens when the genocide happened in 1994. He asked Rwandans to think about this.
“What made you ask me to stay longer may be addressed in the next seven years. I want you to think about it it…I am not putting pressure on you but asking you to think about it because you must think about it,” Kagame told the delegates. You could have heard a pin drop.
Kagame spoke with a thoughtful and reserved tone, perhaps keen not to offend the feelings of many Rwandans who just do not want to hear him talk about retirement. As he spoke of resolving the issues that led him to accept to stay, many delegates had tears in their eyes. Few people know how hard it was for him to accept to stand again. I was involved in convincing him to stand again and, therefore, I know how hard this decision was for him. Thus, as he spoke with measured caution, I knew where he was coming from.
Then I began to ask myself: How then can I tell the story of the pressures Kagame confronted when he insisted on stepping down as president in 2017? How do I explain the difficulty we faced trying to dissuade him from that decision? How do I, as an outside-insider in the decision-making process, demonstrate the heaviness of his heart when he finally yielded to pressure to stand again? How can I tell this unbelievable truth in a situation where conclusions based on ignorance and prejudices are more believable than actual facts?
There is a perception across Africa that leaders do not want to leave power. That often, such leaders and their acolytes seek to amend the constitution to remove terms – not for the good of the country but to foster their personal and group interests. A lot of these concerns have a lot of factual validity. Kagame knows this all too well. In fact, one of the factors that had made him resistant to our efforts to convince him to stay was the bad reputation that removal of term limits has in Africa and elsewhere. He did not want to be seen as another power hungry African autocrat.
The ignorance of the factors, combinations and processes that led Kagame to accept to stand again is blinding. The prejudices that inform people’s attitudes towards leaders who change their nations’ constitutions to remain in power are very strong. So many people believe Kagame must have orchestrated and manipulated the entire process from behind the scenes so that he can remain in power. Yet the truth of what actually happened is far removed from this even as it is very hard to believe.
I was a key player in the process that led to Kagame accepting to stand in this election.
By Andrew M. Mwenda