Rwanda’s history is a trail of brutal dictatorships. And each dictatorship becomes more bloodied than he previous one. At its climax and height of power the regime and head of state are worshipped like a monarch – only to be removed by brute force leaving Rwanda in total chaos.
Of this history we are currently seeing two trends: 1) the incumbent dictatorship is intensifying its efforts to entrench itself beyond its mandate that ends in 2017; 2) Rwandan groups are busy creating more and more political parties that now number almost 30 of them.
But the biggest challenge remains. When and how will Rwandans get rid of the current monstrous regime, and more crucially, how will we ensure that the next regime does not turn into a nightmare, too?
This is the question Rwandans have failed to address for over 117 years since Kanjogera’ coup d’etat in 1896 ushered in a bloody reign right through the 1930s when she and her son King Musinga were deposed by the colonial regime. Enter King Rudahigwa with progressive ideas in the 1940s and 1950s – but passed on mysteriously and too soon. This was the only historical phase without bloodshed. We then enter Kayibanda era followed by Habyarimana and each ending their respective rule violently both personally and for the country. And now Kagame running the most fearful and terrifying regime in recent memory.
What is common to these regimes is that Rwandan people have had no rights, such as the freedoms of expression and of association. At no time did Rwandan people freely exercise these rights, for example, by meeting to advocate for their interests, by volunteering to forward a valued cause, or by protesting a government policy – Rwandans have never a vibrant civil society in other words.
We must go back to the drawing board and even ask: what is civil society? Civil society is a “space” whose function as a mediator between the individual and the state distinguishes it from the government and the business sector. Civil society comprises institutions such as religious organisations, labour unions, charities, community groups, non-profit organisations, and the media. In a functioning democracy such institutions supplement formal governance processes by empowering citizens to shape the culture, politics, and economies of their nation.
Kagame’s Rwanda reveals important insights into how to dismantle and prevent rise of social networks and forums that nurture civil society. Further the Kagame era illustrates the fact that when civil society is weakened and individuals no longer have a way to freely protest government policies, it becomes easy for the state to abuse basic human and civil rights. Witness for example what happened to Grandmother Agatha Nyirahabimana and 11 brave women who tempted to tell the Rwandan ruler in July 2013 that he was taking the country over the cliff with him. This was the first ever attempt by “civil society” to express its views to the Rwandan ruler who immediately threw in jail.
We would argue that today Rwandans have a unique opportunity to appreciate the function of civil society and, ultimately, to rediscover their own power as potential actors in a civil space.
Therefore as many Rwandans form political parties that now number almost 30, an even bigger effort should aim at drawing lessons to address ESSENTIAL QUESTIONS such as:
- What is civil society in Rwandan context ?
- Why is it important in ensuring that the next government does not take us back to the dark days of the current one or previous ones?
- What factors might strengthen civil society in Rwanda;
- In Rwandan particular circumstances what are the characteristics that hinder or foster a vibrant civil society?
- How do we embark on removing fear of authorities that intimate our people over a century?
If Rwandans do not address these questions now we have no assurance that post-Kagame will be different let alone better.