About me.

Andrew M. Mwenda is the founding Managing Editor of The Independent, Uganda’s premier current affairs newsmagazine. One of Foreign Policy magazine 's top 100 Global Thinkers, TED Speaker and Foreign aid Critic

Monday, June 26, 2017

Inside Rwanda’s politics of unity

Why other political parties in Rwanda have endorsed the candidacy of Paul Kagame

The government of Rwanda has been working with a concept called “Ndi’omunyarwanda” i.e. I am a Munyarwanda. It seeks to facilitate people to see themselves as Rwandans, not as Hutus or Tutsis. Some Rwandans grew up in circumstances where their entire family was killed and often the killers now live with them in the same village. Others are from families that killed. The children from these families grew up taking food to their parents in jail. This becomes a stigma. People tell them: “so you are the son of this man who killed my family.” For many the shame and guilty are heavy to bear.

Let me illustrate this with a story from one of the sessions of Ndi’omunyarwanda. Two girls, Jane and Jane (real names) were born and grew up in the same village. One is a daughter of Matthew and another a daughter of Peter (both names are real but I have omitted surnames deliberately). Mathew killed Peter. As they grew up, Jane learnt that her dad is the one who killed the other Jane’s dad. So Jane kept avoiding Jane.

Jane even changed the school because she felt ashamed seeing the other Jane. Even when they met in the market, she would hide. If Jane met Jane on the road, she would walk into the bush. She would go to visit her dad in jail and ask him why he killed peter. He would say: Why are you asking me this? He would not deny but would refuse to answer the question and this continued to torture her.

During one of the Ndi’omunyarwanda sessions attended by some leading politicians in their village in Gisagara, Southern Province, Jane whose father had killed stood up to speak. She said: I am called Jane. I know there is a girl in this room called Jane whose dad was killed by my dad. I don’t know whether she knows it or not. But all my life I have been trying to avoid her. I am tired of this life… I cannot keep this any longer. I want to tell her that I regret what my dad did. I know Jane has no family because all were killed. I want to be her sister. I want to be her family.”

The other Jane stood up and walked to her and hugged her and they all cried. Jane without a father said: I accept to be your sister and your friend. Ever since that session, the two girls have been living together as sisters and friends. Both these girls did not go to school. Both were four years during the genocide. Now they are both 26 years.  Ndi omunyarwanda is a process of reconciling people and bringing them together to rebuild community and trust.

There was another Ndi’omunyarwanda session at the National University of Rwanda at Butare. Then Prime Minister Pierre Damien Habumuremyi showed a documentary on the role of political speech in uniting and/or dividing people. In the documentary there was a scene where soldiers put a Tutsi man onto a pick-up truck and were kicking him and beating him with gun butts.

The room was fully packed. One young man stood up. He said: My dad was a soldier. I was told he was involved in the genocide but now he is dead. When I saw that scene I recognised him on that truck kicking and beating that victim. I wish he was alive today and I ask him why he did this. I wish I was born before him and I teach him how not to do these things. If you see my dad in me you are wrong. I condemn everything he stood for… ndi’omunyarwanda.” 

The entire hall was silent. Then another student stood up. He called back to the state the other student who had spoken. He said: You have touched my life. The man being kicked in that video was actually my dad. I grew up as an orphan among many other orphans. I was the only one fortunate to go to school. My life’s goal was to go to school, be influential and revenge my parents who were killed during genocide. Holding the other boy’s hand, he continued.

I did not know your dad was among those who killed my dad, he said. But today my life has changed after listening to you. I will live as omunyarwanda and not as a Tutsi survivor. I want to make a commitment. I know many like me who plan to revenge but now I know I am a munyarwanda and will mobilise them to see themselves as Banyarwanda. Turning to the other boy he said: You are now my brother. You are not responsible for what your dad did. People were stunned. The room was silent that you could have heard a pin drop.

These stories came back to my mind last week as I sat watching the Rwanda Patriotic Front nominate Paul Kagame as its flag bearer in the presidential elections scheduled for August. At the convention, leaders of all other major political parties in Rwanda also pledged their support for Kagame as well. For many, this was a farce. If I had not gotten deeply involved in the affairs of Rwanda and learnt them at close quarters, I would also have felt the same way.

Rwanda is going through a process of reconciliation and healing. The leadership of Rwanda is asking ordinary Rwandans, like in the two examples above, to live together, work together and eat together even when one’s family killed the other’s family. But how can leaders encourage people to do this while at the top they are involved in adversarial politics of quarrels and recriminations?

The best leadership is by example. At the RPF convention, Rwandan leaders were setting an example: that they may have policy, political and ideological differences, but they will work together as Banyarwanda to rebuild the country and reconcile the people. Watching leaders of other political parties stand up one by one to declare their support for Kagame, I understood what was happening.

Leaders in Rwanda are setting the example of what they are asking and expecting of their citizens: that even killers and victims should work together, live together and eat together. Foreigners, armed with abstract notions of democracy, may look at this show of solidarity with suspicion. But it is this solidarity that has made Rwanda stable and produced the results in many fields that we see today.

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