The world should understand the uniqueness of Rwanda

The Rwandan Parliament recently voted unanimously for the scrapping of presidential term limits.

Observers, especially from the West, while acknowledging the good that President Paul Kagame has done for the country, say that term limits are important in a democracy and that for him to run in 2017 means that he will be no better than other African presidents who do not want to relinquish power through democratic means.

Foreign experts on Rwanda do not recognise that it is a unique country because of its history, its people, the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, and its relatively small size.

Rwanda is one of the few countries in Africa with people who speak one language and share one culture, with the same beliefs and clans. Anthropologists point out that such homogeneity is a strong pillar of unity and social cohesion.

Indeed, social cohesion and unity prevailed among Rwandans in the pre-colonial period. The Belgians, who ruled Rwanda from 1914-1962 used a divide and rule policy to dismantle the unity of people.

In 1933, “ethnic” identity cards, based on physical features like the size of the nose and height, were introduced. This classification led to “ethnic” conflicts, while the country’s small size — at just 26,338 sq km — made it easy for the colonialists to divide the populace.

So why does President Kagame seem indispensable to the majority of Rwandans? He stands as a symbol of unity, security, peace, reconciliation, prosperity, self-worth and, above all, hope for a bright future.

The social cohesion that the colonisers deprived the Rwandan society of has been reclaimed through programmes like Ndi Umunyarwanda (I am Rwandan).

For stopping the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi when the world stood by and watched, and for making it possible for people who had given up on ever seeing their motherland to return after 35 years in exile, President Kagame earned his place as the hero of Rwandans.

The transformation from the brink of a failed state in 1994, to one of the fastest growing economies in Africa, with an average growth of nine per cent between 2000 and 2014, is not by chance but because of the good governance and visionary leadership of President Kagame.

Between 2000 and 2014, the life expectancy of Rwandans rose from 49 to 64 years, the literacy rate jumped from 48 to 83.7 per cent, the population below the poverty line fell from 60.4 to 44.9 per cent, universal access to health care is at 96 per cent, access to nine-year basic education to 97 per cent.

Women MPs now make up 64 per cent of parliament, the highest proportion in the world.

It is because of such an impressive track record that 3.7 million Rwandans want President Kagame to stay on past 2017.

The small size of Rwanda makes it easy for leaders to reach rural areas. With aances in ICT, the minister of local government is able to convene a meeting through video conferencing with five governors, 30 mayors and 416 sector executive secretaries.

In a few hours, executive secretaries can pass messages to 2,148 cell executives on mobile apps, who will reach their village constituents in a few minutes.

During elections, voter turnout in some polling stations is higher than 90 per cent. Outsiders claim it is vote rigging, saying such a turnout is impossible in democratic elections.

In Rwanda, some of the universal models of societal management do not work. President Kagame has created home-grown solutions such as tackling the large numbers of genocide suspects’ trials using traditional Gacaca courts, a system initially opposed and termed unconventional.

When outsiders try to judge Rwanda, they should understand that the country went through a turbulent past, different from any other in the world.

The model of democracy that Rwandans want should be left for them to decide.

The aantage of a united population, with one common language, one culture, reconciliation with the past, and good leadership is that the majority of the people can easily reach consensus on what they want. Why should this seem strange or undemocratic to outsiders?

Gerald Mbanda is a journalist based in Kigali. He comments on media and political issues.