Rwanda doesn’t have an opposition? Good point, but...

Saturday August 17 2013


By Frederick Golooba-Mutebi

Rwanda is once again caught up in election fever. In just under a month, on September 16, Banyarwanda will go out to vote in elections that will give them a new lower House of parliament.

As election fevers go, this one is pretty mild.

Elsewhere in the region, usually as people prepare to vote, the excitement is so palpable one can almost touch it. Not in Rwanda.

Presidential-election campaigns may stir up some emotions and get some ordinary folk to burst into song and dance, with others walking vast distances to go and listen to particular candidates.

For parliamentary elections, however, the pre-election environment is notable for the absence of crowds waving political-party banners and tree branches or merry making. Nor does one encounter other features of electioneering, such as the street fighting and open trading of insults that tend to characterise electoral contests elsewhere on the continent.

Here, preparations for elections are sedate affairs, found by outsiders to be unlike anything they know back wherever they come from, and also rather boring. Where else does one find people, politicians included, going about their normal business quietly, only a month before major elections?


There are many reasons for this peculiar state of affairs.

Many have to do with the way post-genocide politics is organised, and the values the government seeks to promote. The values spring from recognising that the roots of the genocide and the mass violence that preceded and accompanied it lay partly in the cutthroat, winner-takes-all politics pre-1994 and the systematic exclusions that meant that those who lost elections and power lost everything.

After the collapse of the Habyarimana regime and the defeat of the short-lived government that succeeded it, the political forces that inherited the country, led by the Rwanda Patriotic Front, which had won the war, agreed on a road map to a “new Rwanda.”

Guiding the agreement was a set of values: Anti-sectarianism, consensus building, and power- and responsibility-sharing among consenting political organisations.

Anti-sectarianism made it illegal for anyone to use ethnicity or social identity as a platform for seeking public office. The imperative to seek consensus in decision-making ruled out adversarial contestation that would enable dominant parties to impose their views on their weaker counterparts.

Power- and responsibility-sharing ruled out any party seeking to enjoy the benefits or carry the burdens of incumbency with no role for other parties.

The acceptance of these values by the different parties explains Rwanda’s multiparty government in which the overwhelmingly dominant Rwanda Patriotic Front must, in line with the Constitution, share ministerial and other positions with smaller potential rivals.

It is in this sense that observers who argue that there is no opposition in Rwanda have a point. Many of the legal parties are in formal coalition with the RPF.

Of the four that are not, two have members in the Cabinet. The two that are neither RPF coalition partners nor represented in the Cabinet are tiny and weak, and hardly able to act as “opposition” in a conventional sense.

Rwanda’s way of organising politics, whereby parties that lose elections play important roles in government and potential opposition parties support government policies and work to preserve the status quo and its underlying values, has taken much of the heat out of its electoral processes.

And this, in turn, has ensured that ordinary voters have no reason to get too excited about elections that always leave them with a government in which almost all political parties participate.

There are observers who argue that this system is advantageous to the already dominant Rwanda Patriotic Front, and that it constrains other parties.

There is some truth in the first part of the argument. By ensuring that disaffected groups do not destabilise the country, the system has allowed the RPF to pursue its original vision of building a new Rwanda and its ambition to lead the process.

The second part is debatable. Rather than constrain other parties, the system allows them to play roles in government that a winner-takes-all model would not. Given the vast resources at its disposal and the inevitable advantages of incumbency it enjoys, the RPF would still win if electoral contests were adversarial.

However, a winner-takes-all system would rule out consensus building and power- and responsibility-sharing. Smaller parties would lose everything and be consigned almost permanently to the margins of the country’s politics.

The exclusion could provoke them into adopting disruptive tactics and strategies. Such an outcome would hardly be an improvement on the current system. Nor would it advance the collective aspirations of the wider Rwandan society that treasures stability after decades of recurrent upheavals.

However, to end the discussion on this point would be to ignore a question that friends and foes of RPF-led Rwanda continue to debate: Is the system as it is sustainable?

The question is extremely important and Rwandans cannot afford to ignore it. At the end of the day, they must come up with the answer. They are the ones, after all, who will have to live with the consequences of whatever choices they make.

Frederick Golooba-Mutebi is a Kampala- and Kigali-based researcher and writer on politics and public affairs. E-mail: [email protected]