Rwandan President Promises ‘Free And Fair Elections’
The 54th State: Rwandan President promises ‘free and fair elections’
Commonwealth Day 2010 an “important milestone in Rwanda’s transformational journey”, says President Kagame during state visit to Marlborough House
Sixteen years ago, Commonwealth citizens outside of Africa could have been forgiven for knowing little about Rwanda.
The small, rugged East African country had passed through a tumultuous few decades since independence from Belgium and, before that, the fledgling German Empire. Many of the population had been exiled amid a bitter struggle between Hutu and Tutsi. Yet the conflict had rarely made international headlines.
All that changed, notoriously, in the spring of 1994 when the country erupted in violence. Over a hundred days, nearly a million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were butchered by government backed militias. Foreign news agencies sent their teams to cover the unfolding genocide as international peacekeeping efforts foundered. The world couldn’t get enough of Rwanda.
Last week, the headlines couldn’t have been more contrasting. In place of bulletins about the bloodletting, there were countless column inches dedicated to the country’s inaugural visit to the Commonwealth Secretariat in London, United Kingdom, as the association’s newest member.
“We want the rest of the world to know Rwanda for good reasons.” – Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame.
Less than four months since this once French-speaking nation was accepted by Heads of Government in Trinidad and Tobago, President Paul Kagame witnessed on 8 March 2010 the Rwandan tricolour being hoisted into the air on the grounds of Marlborough House as traditional dancers and drummers braved the brisk winter’s day to perform.
“I was very glad to see the flag – our flag, the country’s flag – being raised,” said Mr Kagame, a onetime rebel leader, speaking to Commonwealth News after the ceremony. “The significance of raising the flag reinforces that we are a member of a very big family.”
Freedoms and rights
So continued a whirlwind 36 hours in London for Mr Kagame as the President was shuttled between meetings with Commonwealth Secretary-General Kamalesh Sharma, luncheon with Queen Elizabeth II as Head of the Commonwealth, and a reception with high commissioners – not forgetting a public lecture with the Royal Commonwealth Society and a business briefing with investors courtesy of the Commonwealth Business Council.
At the morning’s press conference and flag-raising, Mr Kagame shared a platform with Mr Sharma and Patrick Manning, Trinidad and Tobago’s Prime Minister and incumbent Commonwealth Chair-in-Office. But it was the Rwandan President who received the lion’s share of questions from the roomful of camera crews and inquisitive reporters.
“Do you agree that all is not well in the country?” asked one journalist. “I wondered if you could set out for us specifically what you intend to do in order to meet criticisms of failings in the guarantees of human rights and media freedoms in Rwanda?” asked another.
‘Committed to the values of the Commonwealth’
Mr Kagame, keen to point out that Rwanda was not alone in having failings, stressed that the benefits stemming from Commonwealth membership could help address them. Rwanda, he added, had made much progress in rebuilding itself since the killings of 1994, when the “freedoms and rights” of Rwandan citizens were abruptly infringed.
“Each family has its own failings, but when they come together, then they share good practices to overcome those failings, and that is why Rwanda sees it as very important to be part of the Commonwealth. There is a lot we are going to gain from it,” he said, adding: “Rwanda is committed to the values of the Commonwealth.”
“We are going to have a very dense roadmap of collaboration with Rwanda, in which I myself and the two Deputy Secretaries-General who are present here will be personally engaged in carrying it forward.” – Commonwealth Secretary-General Kamalesh Sharma during press conference on 8 March 2010.
Pledging to take advantage of the Secretariat’s expertise and programmes in youth and education, Mr Kagame, who was elected in 2000, asserted that Commonwealth Day 2010 was an “important milestone in Rwanda’s transformational journey”.
Investment and development
“It is our hope that in collaboration with the rest of the Commonwealth family, Rwanda’s efforts in the areas of good governance, private-sector investment and development, democracy, freedoms, and rights, and regional integration, will all be greatly strengthened,” he said.
Today some 75 per cent of Rwanda’s population is under 30-years-old. Forty per cent were born after the genocide. Statistics show that life expectancy is just 50 years, a modest improvement on the situation in 1970. Seventy-two infants in every 1,000 die prematurely. Meanwhile only 31 in every 1,000 Rwandans have access to the internet.
Yet the country has taken significant strides to deal with the challenges of development and fallout from the genocide. Local gacaca courts have helped communities deal with the dual issues of justice and reconciliation, while legislation on decentralisation and increasing the participation of women in public life has received international praise.
“Rwanda has come a long way,” asserted Mr Kagame. “We now have women having the highest representation in parliament in the whole world, where women are contributing immensely to the social and economic transformation of Rwanda… We have not had this in our history.”
“We have seen stability, security and the people of Rwanda gaining more confidence than they have ever had in their lives and taking charge of their responsibilities and building their country and moving forward,” he continued. “We are a country that has been realising an average growth of 8 per cent of our GDP for the last seven years.
“We are a country that has seen basic education go to the level of 92 per cent enrolment in the whole country, and we have raised that from a six-year primary-school education to a nine-year basic education. We have seen health insurance covering 87 per cent of our people. We have seen growth in every sector.”
Mr Kagame, who faces presidential elections this coming August, in January invited Secretary-General Sharma to send a Commonwealth Expert Team to monitor the ballot. The President, speaking to Commonwealth News, was quick to insist that he hoped the poll would be “free and fair”.
“Free and fair elections are important to Rwanda, as they are to any country, and we want to see Rwandans make the choices they want in determining who their leaders become,” he said, evidently eager for his new Commonwealth relatives to leave with the impression that the Rwanda of 2010 is a world away from the Rwanda of 1994.
“In respecting that, we want the rest of the world – which does not know much about Rwanda, which knows Rwanda only for bad reasons – to know Rwanda for good reasons.”