Rwanda is happening today and she has a rich repertoire of lessons that she can provide to other countries. One month without a keen observation may be enough to lose touch of the changes taking place in this country.
It is surprising to see reports from foreign individuals and organisations that condemn it as a tightly-controlled, authoritarian, secretive country, months after their visits. Apart from not being any of these since 1994, what you see today may not be what you’ll see two weeks hence. In fact, government is undertaking so many reforms in so many aspects of the country’s fabric so frequently that even some Rwandans may not be keeping up with the pace. For instance, is there any transparency in Rwanda? Allow me time to recount a story. Last Sunday I was in the village and had occasion to chat with a neighbour, Sylvestre Semajeri. I always leave more enlightened after talking to any neighbour in my village, north near D.R. Congo and Uganda. Semajeri was in an animated mood because, he told me, he had shown the whole world that a citizen in Rwanda is a big deal! When a government minister wanted to “hoodwink me with a lame answer”, explained Semajeri, “the President saved me.”
It took me time to understand that Semajeri was referring to ‘Umushyikirano’ (the National Dialogue), a meeting that brings together Rwandan leaders every year. This year it took place on 10th and 11th December 2009 and invited diplomats and development partners to attend.Semajeri had gone to a hill, where his radio set could receive Radio Rwanda, armed with his cellular phone. He had rung into the ‘Dialogue’ to ask why there was no radio reception in his area. So, over his radio, Semajeri had heard the President ask his minister to explain.In her explanation, the minister said the problem was that transmissions in neighbouring countries were stronger than Rwandan ones. Negotiations were ongoing, she said, asking officials of those countries to reduce the power of their transmissions.
The President, however, disagreed and suggested that a way of strengthening Rwanda’s transmissions be found instead. “So you see,” concluded Semajeri to me, “the whole world heard how I was as important as the minister!” And that goes to the heart of the manner in which leadership in Rwanda conducts its business today. That villager in the remotest part of Rwanda knows only half the story of the lengths to which his government is going to empower him. Yet, it is not only his right to know the whole story but also to participate in its evolution. To make this possible, government has created many forums that seek ways of solving all the citizens’ problems and involves them in the overall development effort of the country. Thus, where in other countries transparency is paid lip service, in Rwanda it has been taken to new digital heights and citizens’ phone-ins, e-mails and SMS messages get on-the-spot, amplified responses on radio, TV and online.
These last 15 years have seen the proliferations of forums in which leaders at all levels meet to discuss developmental challenges and how to address them. The citizenry are fully engaged in airing their grievances as well as offering opinion on how they can participate in the search for solutions.
Before that ‘Mushyikirano’, for example, President Kagame had hosted a similar forum the previous Sunday where, for close to five hours, he fielded unrestricted questions and opinions from journalists. To involve the public, he received live phone-ins, e-mails and SMS messages. That Sunday interview and similar others come on top of the monthly presidential press conferences. Also, the President’s frequent visits to the countryside invariably involve discussions with villagers, where he calls upon local leaders to account for themselves in front of them. These have not yet featured live phone-ins but, given the seriousness that government is attaching to transparency, there is no telling if tomorrow we’ll not be witnessing ‘Cisco-teleconferencing’ facilities being applied so as to be open to all and sundry.
Once installed, those teleconferencing facilities may be used in the weekly cabinet meetings routinely held in the President’s office. They may also be applied in the yearly ‘Imihigo’, meetings where all leaders converge to give reports of, and sign anew, their performance contracts. Then there is ‘Umwiherero’ every year, where for a week all leaders review what has been achieved and brainstorm on what needs to be done in advancing the country’s general progress. All that apart, Rwandans interact either with their leaders or with their fellow countrymen/women in many other forums. These include unity and reconciliation meetings, ‘Ingando’ civic education conventions and Gacaca-court system sessions. ‘Itorero’ creates culture-awareness in peer groups. ‘Umuganda’ brings community members together for a monthly activity of any given relevance. In ‘Ubudehe’, members of a community together work on identified self-help projects.
All these are in the service of answering Rwandans’ quest “to bend history in the direction of justice” and prosperity. (Quotations courtesy of President Obama.)
If Rwandan leadership should be branded authoritarian for marrying home-grown initiatives, may it plead guilty!