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Rwanda New Cabinet: Kagame shakes up power set-up

by Fred W. Mwasa, The Chronicles.

Paul Kagame - Rwanda

Paul Kagame – Rwanda

IN A GOVERNMENT reshuffle on Thursday last week, President Kagame made a surprise announcement by appointing Pierre Damien Habumuremyi as the new Prime Minister.

Habumuremyi had been named five months earlier as the Minister of Education. At the same time, the President also appointed four Senator. These include, Ombudsman Tito Rutaremara, Deputy Speaker of Parliament, Dr Jean Damascene Ntawukuriryayo, the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Internal Security, Penelope Kantarama and former PM Bernard Makuza.

” Former PM, Bernard Makuza treading a tricky political path”‘

As expected, on Monday the senate was sworn-in and Dr Ntawukuriryayo elected the new senate president and Makuza his deputy. Ntawukuriryayo comes from the same party, PSD, as the man he is replacing, Dr Vincent Biruta while Makuza is an ‘independent’ his party, MDR having been banned in 2002 on allegations of promoting ethnic divisionism and the politics of ethnicity.

While the changes signal continuation of the current power-sharing arrangements agreed between the elite and enshrined in the 2003 constitution, political pundits say that these changes, because of the profiles of individuals involve also represent political alignment with succession at the presidency in 2017 hitting a crescendo. President Kagame has said he will respect the constitution and retire when his second constitution term comes to an end in 2017. The president’s latest move and in the near future could boost or shatter many a political dream.

Makuza treading tricky political path

While some have argued that Bernard Makuza was replaced because he had served in the position for a long time (more than a decade), others argue that his replacement and relocation to the Senate is politically significant in rearranging the political map in the run up to 2017 when President Kagame is expected to step down.

The appointment of Mr. Makuza, a well-breed fellow, from a historically well known political family and probably one of the very few Rwandans in the current government who was brought up during heydays of MDR to the Senate possibly curbs his potential ambition at the presidency in 2017.

Nonetheless, Pundits argue that his continued stay in government, including his election to the post of senate vice president despite not officially belonging to any political party is a reward for being royal to the president and showing limited higher political ambition thus far or trying to challenge the political order as some of his former party colleagues have done.

Kagame - Power shake-up 2011What has caught the pundits’ eye is the fact that the Senate seat has a constitutional mandate of eight years. As the Senate Vice-President, Makuza would be a heart-beat away from the presidency but equally far from it depending on the political dynamics in 2017, when he shall still be the deputy head of the senate  with his term ending in 2019.

Ntawukuriryayo chances equally doomed

Another intriguing appointment in the senate was that of the free-speaking and independent minded Jean Damascene Ntawukuriryayo as a Senator. What did not surprise is that he was elected President of the Senate, replacing his fellow party colleague, Dr Vincent Biruta. Until then, he was the Deputy President of the Deputy President of the Lower Chamber of Parliament. A contestant in the last presidential campaign, a similar fate, say political observers, as that of former Premier Makuza, is in the offing with his appointment.

Ntawukuriryayo, who was a presidential candidate in the 2010 elections under the Social Democratic Party (Parti Social Démocrate) has served as minister of health amongst other senior government positions. Secondly, now that he is president of the senate and PSD being a key ally of the ruling party in the power-sharing pact, it is highly unlikely that he will run and defeat an RPF candidate in the 2017 polls.
Overall though, it seems, at least according to former fellow academics at the national university where he once worked, Ntawukuriryayo’s independent mindedness and considered above ethnic politicking has made him popular among the liberal minded elite and the current political class that his political star has continued to rise.

Habumuremyi- Shortest serving Education minister

Thursday October 06 when the new Prime Minister (PM), Mr. Pierre Damien Habumuremyi was announced late evening on state radio, it made him on record the shortest-serving Minister of Education. The appointment came exactly five months and probably a few hours after Mr. Habumuremyi was named Education Minister on May 06 – a promotion that also surprised many observers.

He was recalled back from the East African Legislative Assembly (EALA) to take over the education docket following turbulent months that had resulted into thousands of university students losing government sponsorship in an attempt to initiate cost-sharing and curb sprawling expenditure. The ex-education minister, Dr. Charles Murigande, repeatedly threw in the towel – failing to offer timely explanation or boldly stand by the policy.

He repeatedly said he was “just implementing” what had been decided by cabinet. By distancing himself from the controversial policy, some sections viewed that as saying: ‘am with you students and parents, it is the other members of cabinet that just wish the worst for you’.

The policy was essentially aimed at introducing cost-sharing at university with the government continuing to pay tuition for university students and develop infrastructure and parents catering for students’ daily upkeep-meals and accommodation. Amid muted public outrage – with anger mainly being directed to government via internet platforms – where people speak anonymously, government had to clearly do something. Only about 23 percent of the students formally sponsored by the government had qualified under the new plan.

President Kagame intervened, and the number of students retained for government funding shot up to more than 70 percent. The education minister, whom fellow academics at the country’s top university view as less accommodative of alternative perspectives, was only acting from the background.

Then came a cabinet reshuffle, and Dr. Murigande was sent away packing as ambassador to Japan. In came Mr. Habumuremyi. His political curriculum vitae may not be too long, but he has served in much incendiary positions before. During the hotly contested 2003 presidential elections, Habumuremyi was the Executive Secretary of the National Electoral Commission (NEC) – essentially as the man on the firing end from bitter critics of the political process.

Along with long-serving NEC chief, Prof. Chrysologue Karangwa, he came out unscathed,, calm, and ever composed thus convincing everyone who cared to listen that he was doing the right thing – despite having to be seen – along with the entire commission as less independent. The same situation re-emerged during the parliamentary polls a few months later.
Habumuremyi and his boss often sat together as fire-brand politician and ex-PM Faustin Twagiramungu stuck a knife into their handling of the elections. When the votes were counted, he barely raised enough votes to warrant him to slate the process as unfair. With just 3.62 percent of the ballots in his favour, Mr. Twagiramungu was left in disbelief as his home turf of Cyangugu equally rejected him in toto.

RPF cadre?

Habumuremyi oversaw local elections in 2005 – that ushered in a reformed territorial administrative structure of five provinces, 30 districts, several hundred sectors and thousands of cells and villages. In all the polls, that took place under his watch, the dominant RPF party and its small coalition partners carried the day. Perhaps that explains why when Habumuremyi gave his acceptance speech at Parliament buildings after taking the oath of office as the new PM; he thanked the  Rwanda Patriotic Front party, which he said had been his political mentor. Mr. Habumuremyi was replaced at NEC – just before the 2008 parliamentary elections.

He would later move on to EALA, but would later return to be take up the leadership mantle at the hot-seat that is the troubled ministry of education in May this year – a year before his five-year term came to an end. At the education ministry, he once furiously reacted to a teacher who had expressed concern over taking part at the ‘Intore’ programme. Critics claim the mass mobilisation programme is a ploy by the ruling party to compel all Rwandans to become RPF members. The backers of the programme, however, say it is only aimed at restoring the true Rwandan identity and spirit.

Taking oath of office

During the swearing in ceremony, the now ex-PM Bernard Makuza often smiled and looked composed as ever as he sat at the front row of seats reserved for cabinet ministers. In his mind, it seemed like he was telling the incoming PM that ‘I have had my fair share of that seat next to the Speaker of the Chamber of Deputies’.

Makuza is now a Senator, but probably to make him get used to the seating arrangement that will eventually see him move a few rows to the back. Clearly next time that any such function takes place; Senator Makuza might take up another seat among fellow lawmakers. The sitting arrangement is that Ministers come first.

As he named the new cabinet – but of the usual old faces, the new PM caused a stir when he almost left out the minister of state for transport Alexi Nzahabwanimana. “I apologise for that,” he said, sounding embarrassed. State Minister for Energy, Ms Coletha Ruhamya lost her job – despite overseeing the recent unveiling of a methane gas extraction plant.

The Habumuremyi cabinet

With just a few hours between the period when the President named him on Thursday evening and the swearing on Friday morning, it may be unlikely that he had the time to vet who should be on his team. The constitution empowers him – in consultation with the President, to come up with a cabinet.

Firstly, the troubled education ministry remained vacant. There will be the State Minister for Primary and Secondary Education, Dr. Mathias Harebamungu, to oversee it for some time. The information docket, which has been hanging in balance has finally been placed in the office of the president.

It will now be part of the ICT ministry, under Dr. Ignace Gatare – which puts him under scrutiny as government implements a mechanism for media self regulation. The changes mean he will be the punching bag for press freedom campaign groups and wary donors.

The Ministry of Infrastructure, which is supposed to have three junior ministers – only has one. In his brief speech, President Kagame first complained about the perception of his country– describing it as the “most scrutinised” in the world, before explaining that cabinet reshuffles are meant to move people from one position to another. Equating the many ‘competent’ people at his disposal to a soccer team, the President said not all have to be in cabinet – but can serve in other positions.

The ex-PM was seen bowing his head when the President said the outgoing premier had “done what he had to do”. It may never be public information as to why the President – just after bidding farewell to his Nigerian counterpart Goodluck Jonathan, decided to drop Mr. Makuza, but one thing is clear, he oversaw the country for over a decade.

Though falling short of appreciating the good he may have accomplished, many observers are pointing to the possibility of Mr. Makuza heading the Senate, where they assert it will his time to ‘eat’ what he has worked for.

Wider Cabinet reshuffle in offing?

Due to the change in the leader of Government’s business position, there may be another impending cabinet reshuffle which could mean many things. Political observers note that Kagame is circumspectly keeping his cards close to the chest in a bid to rein in any infighting and jockeying for power among those he perceives to be his successors which may fuel the perception that the succession issue is among the most – if not the most – serious problems of Rwandan politics thus throwing service delivery to the people to the back-burner.

Kagame knows that while succession is not an insignificant issue, it is easily oversold as has happened in other countries within the region, which has gone ahead to take the shine out of the more critical developmental agenda.

Succession remains a serious issue, however, because so much is at stake in the longer run. Once it plays out, succession may determine whether Kagame’s policies of reform and opening to the outside world are continued and perhaps deepened, or abandoned. The President has often demonstrated that he still has fire in his belly to take hard decisions as often witnessed in Thursday’s reshuffle and in numerous occasions in the past.

However, looking at Kagame’s modus operandi, there is no indication at all that he is likely to declare his preferred successor. Being a shrewd a politician, he may leave the people guessing till the next general elections are near. Hitherto, the President will most likely while away his time at Village Urugwiro doing what he does best as he scrutinises potential successors.

[The Chronicles]


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