The recent resignation of one of the longest-serving RPF Members of Parliament, Connie Bwiza, came as a surprise to many of us who follow politics in Rwanda. The whole affair is shrouded in mystery.
Whether she resigned because of personal reasons or whether she disagrees with her party’s position on a third term for President Paul Kagame is not the focus of this piece.
But her resignation reminded me of many other influential RPF women who once occupied top positions in the government, or other state institutions, and whose names and careers have now receded into oblivion.
The question that I have been asking myself is why the RPF, the party that has benefited from the trailblazing spirit of these women, would want them sidelined despite their role in shaping Rwanda’s acclaimed gender revolution.
The post-genocide period presented a great challenge to Rwandan society but it was also an opportunity to try something new.
It is in that context some influential women within the ruling party became the first adopters of progressive ideas emanating from the 1985 Beijing Conference on Women. The RPF was thus able to present itself as a defender of women’s rights.
The policies these women championed were crucial in increasing the number of women in parliament through gender quotas and expanding women’s economic opportunities by allowing them to own and inherit land.
Being the early adopters meant that they took it upon themselves to explain to citizens what the concept of “gender” was and why it mattered in post-genocide Rwanda.
Many of us can recall the speeches of the late Aloysia Inyumba as she crisscrossed the whole country, explaining the basics of gender equality to ordinary Rwandans.
Their efforts paid off with the inclusion of the gender quota clause in the 2013 Constitution, which, in theory, opened the doors of power to Rwandan women.
Critics have pointed out that the increase of women in the Rwandan parliament has not translated into their ability to shape politics. In a country that has yet to allow any credible opposition to take shape, all political power is still concentrated in the hands of the president and his inner circle.
What has changed is that the RPF no longer supports those vocal and outspoken women who pioneered the gender revolution, but has now shifted its support towards conservatives and risk-avoiding women leaders who are much more willing to toe the party line.
This means that the “liberation girls” who used to have some influence on policymaking have been sidelined, marginalised, and in some cases accused of fomenting factions within the party.
Nothing illustrates this trend better than the rise and fall of one of the best known of RPF’s “strong women,” Rose Kabuye. After serving four years as the first post-genocide mayor of Kigali, she joined parliament and rose to become the chair of its Defence and Security Committee.
At the same time, she was an active member of the Women’s Parliamentary Forum. Leaving aside the details of her arrest in Germany, one can safely say that the media storm that followed left her as the heroine of the RPF.
By 2010, things had started to change. Kabuye’s name was no longer being trumpeted on state-owned media. It was becoming clear that the authorities were not pleased with her newly acquired popularity.
She was later fired from her job at the President’s Office and slowly retreated into obscurity. Unfortunately, her problems did not end there. Her husband, Capt (Rtd) David Kabuye, was arrested and spent six months in jail for illegal possession of firearm. After serving his sentence, he was re-arrested on different charges.
All this would not have meant all that much if Rose Kabuye’s situation were an outlier, but it’s not. The RPF’s war against its strong women reached another level during the 2014 political bureau meeting. Several women were singled out and warned over their allegedly subversive activities.
During the meeting, a list of names was read out and it included a number of women who at some point had occupied high-level positions in the government or other state institutions.
Rose Kabuye, of course, was on the list. The list also included some new names such as Mary Baine, a former permanent secretary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs; Immaculee Uwanyirigira, a former ambassador to the Netherlands and others.
Due to these threats, many RPF women cadres have been keeping their heads down in order to protect their careers. The problem is that this kind of attitude will no longer allow them to shape policymaking as they did before.
The RPF can claim to have introduced gender quotas, but when it is silencing its powerful women, there is no way the party can deliver the promises of gender equality to ordinary Rwandans.
So RPF women cadres are coming to realise that their presence means little when the party’s male-dominated culture still expects them to be submissive to the leader’s wishes. For them, the RPF is no longer a party that can accommodate change, it is a defender of the status quo.
Reverien Mfizi is a PhD candidate in the Department of Political Science at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Buffalo. Twitter: @revimfizi