In 2005, a local businessman was contracted to build a road in Muhanga district, Southern Rwanda.
The contractor would employ hundreds of villagers.
The contractor had one thing in mind; completing the project with in the shortest period possible. The laborers were put on grueling pressure for the next six months straight.
The elderly almost collapsed. It was an excruciating experience, but they persevered and completed the project.
Until the end of the project, however, no laborer had received a penny. They were held on endless promises until the contractor vanished.
All workers stormed district authorities demanding the businessman be summoned and forced to pay. It didn’t happen.
They remained filled with bitterness for nine years until one recent day. It is July 17, 2014 and Rwanda’s Paul Kagame is on his usual ‘citizen retreat’ program.
Augustine Musabyeyezu, 40, one of the victims of the scam, sighs relief as Kagame’s convoy arrives.
Thousands of villagers, including Musabyeyezu, excitedly wave Rwandan flags to welcome the President.
The opportune moment
There is no better day than this; they whisper, as the muscularly stronger squeeze their way through a crowd seeking to get a closer and strategic position.
The President greets the crowd and proceeds to take a sit, giving them the opportunity to speak to him directly.
Musabyeyezu seizes the moment.
He thrusts himself through the crowd and takes the floor. He is given the microphone. “Your excellence,” he says with agitation and a vividly angry voice.
“I was employed by a private contractor named Valence Musabyimana to construct a bridge. The contractor disappeared before paying us.”
Kagame frowns, looks left and then right, figuring out who to hold accountable.
Musabyeyezu notices that the President is not listening. He takes a break, and waits for his attention.
“Did you raise this to the local authorities?” the President asks. “Yes, Mr. President,” Musabyeyezu responds. “The district has done nothing about it Mr. President,” Musabyeyezu bursts into a surrendering mode.
The President then asks the Mayor of Muhanga district to explain.
The mayor fumbles – giving a vague explanation. The crowd murmurs in disapproval.
The President orders the mayor to resolve the matter as soon as possible or face serious consequences. The crowd instantly goes wild with applause.
It’s a routine
This incident is similar to a dozen others the President’s office has organized in different parts of the country. They are regular, often dramatic and televised live.
People on the streets are seen with head phones in their ears following the event aired on local radio stations. The elites in offices follow a live stream online. Live tweets fly all over the place. It’s a state in motion.
Kagame’s opening remark is usually predictable. “I am here to be reminded of some of the promises I made.”
Normally, he delivers crashing speeches; pragmatic, philosophical, and most often intertwined with idioms, proverbs and inferences.
“I love the way he speaks, he speaks with wisdom,” says Jean Mukambaraga, a local resident of Muhanga district.
As the President speaks, villagers listen attentively, very often bursting into applause in agreement.
After his speeches, villagers line up to lament about poor public service while others go as far as raising marital wrangles, causing laughter.
The President will apologise for broken promises, but frequently puts local leaders, including his ministers on spot to explain.
It’s a public court, so to speak, as citizens get the opportunity to grill local leaders and demand for accountability before the President.
Breeding a unique leadership style
For many, Kagame’s leadership style is not that of a typical African President.
The kind of President many in other places are accustomed to, is that who drives through the bumpy crooked roads in the countryside only a time of presidential campaigns or perhaps during unavoidable circumstances like a natural catastrophe.
Monsignor Smaragde Mbonyintege, head of the Catholic Church in Rwanda, believes Kagame’s style is a means of ensuring devolution and accountability.
It allows him “to know the best performing leaders, and the different ways they address problems,” Monsignor Mbonyintege says.
Kagame initiated this outreach program shortly after he was elected for his first term in 2003.
Professor Nshuti Manasseh has served in Kagame’s government in various capacities; as a minister and an advisor.
He says the outreach program “was designed to give the President evidence on service delivery from leaders.” “The essence of the outreach is accountability.”
Kagame’s crew is always complete. He travels with his advisors, ministers, all top security chiefs, and heads of institutions.
“You do not want to be absent when people are raising concerns on projects that concern your ministry,” one of the ministers says.
The grilling is real
On June 6, 2014, the President visited Nyabihu district, Northern Rwanda.
Farmers told the President they desperately waited too long for a milk plant he had promised to install in the area during a prior visit in 2011.
The President asked Dr. Agnes Kalibata, the Minister of Agriculture and Animal Resources to explain. She did not impress him.
He made a promise the plant would be installed as a matter of priority. The following month, the minister lost her job.
“Accountability is the heartbeat of delivery,” says Prof Manasseh. “That’s how the president evaluates services accorded to citizens.”
During his visit to Muhanga, the President said that “sometimes we miss our objectives because some people fail to think critically, creatively and work with urgency.”
For example, he said, “we have minerals that are not exploited here, yet minerals should provide solutions to our problems instead of posing them.”
He was frustrated Muhanga district has failed to develop the mining industry. Despite having huge deposits of minerals, the President leant that mining contributes only 1.2% to Mihanga’s economy.
Edwin Mukiza is a local social critic. He says the President’s visits give him a true image of his leadership. “He escapes the flavored opinions he is fed on by his lieutenants,” says Mukiza.
However, others criticize this style. Veteran journalist Rama Isibo is of the view the outreach program should shame the minister or head of department only for the betterment of policy implementation.
However, he says, the approach does not ensure service delivery per say. “The ministers are put on an air of ‘Don’t Mess With Me’,” he says. “They are deeply scared and insecure.”
But Dr. Venuste Karambizi, a lecturer of political science at the Kigali Independent University, has a different view. For him, it is important that the President gives such re-assuring speeches and hold the leaders accountable before the citizens.
“Rwanda is a country undergoing political transformation, from the 1994 politics that caused hatred and a genocide,” says. “His approach is highly needed in a developing country like Rwanda.”
Committing to a course
Every mayor signs an annual performance contract with the president, promising to achieve certain set goals.
The President regularly visits the district to verify whether the mayors fulfilled their promises. It’s the grilling period. Locals become witnesses. They grieve about unfulfilled promises and poor services, and candidly sing praise to achievements.
But, there is a twist to the outreach. It is not all about leaders. Sometimes the President puts the locals to task as well, demanding cooperation from citizens too. “We all have a role to play so that we achieve more,” he said during his visit to Nyabihu district.
His demand is usually specific; mostly about security and hard work. “We cannot maintain our development without security,” he frequently says.
Even when Rwanda is completely secure, the western and northern regions are bordering conflict-prone Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo), where DRC troops regularly battled rebels. When fighting erupts across, security agencies in Rwanda are on high alert.
“We cannot allow anyone to compromise our security and our development. It starts with each of you playing your role,” the President said in Nyabihu.
The twist is what makes Kagame’s leadership style attracts diverse views.
Back to Muhanga district, before the President bids farewell, and as thunderous drums of excited villagers produce a spectacular rhyme, at least what matters the most is that one broken soul had been healed.
Musabyeyezu has been re-assured of his lost hope. A decision has been made that the district ensures laborers get paid, come what may.
“I am so happy,” is all Musabyeyezu can say.
By Lilian Gahima and Magnus Mazimpaka