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Inside Rwanda’s National Leadership Retreat

by Magnus Mazimpaka
1:23 pm

President Paul Kagame’s government will temporarily shutdown for two days, starting from February 28, to March 2.

Kagame is not facing a debt ceiling as US President Barack Obama did in 2013, instead, the government will goe onto a retreat to reflect on issues affecting the country.

The purpose of the retreat is to review previous year performance, discuss new strategies and set goals for the coming year.

Every year, Kagame’s government uses this tradition, locally know as “Umwiherero”, to address the challenges Rwanda faces.

This National Leadership Retreat is organised by the Office of the President together with the Office of the Prime Minister.

President Kagame is the chair. Over 250 leaders, from central and local government, heads of parastatals and civil society attend.

All sectors are discussed; ranging from economy, politics, justice, infrastructure, health, to education and others.

Government officials use buses enroute to East of Rwanda for National Leadership Retreat.

Government officials use buses enroute to East of Rwanda for National Leadership Retreat.

The idea of government retreats came in January, 2004, after Kagame’s first election of 2003.

It was held at the Akagera Game Lodge, a swanky touristic hotel, far East of Rwanda, in the middle of Akagera National Park.

During this inaugural retreat, dicussions focused on the general direction of government policy, identifying changes to current approaches and initiatives that had not proven successful, while highlighting those with good results for accelerating development for the benefit of all Rwandans.

A range of presentations were made by heads of government institutions. The retreat discussed failures and implementation of plans for the year ahead.

At the end of the retreat, everyone appreciated how useful the discussions were and President Kagame, in his speech, requested the retreat be institutionalized and it would be Rwanda’s tool to confront the development challenges facing the country.

The first four years of Umwiherero saw questionable results. The organisation of the retreat was often rushed, objectives were poorly defined and few tangible results could be measured.

President Paul Kagame chairs the National Leadership Retreat

President Paul Kagame chairs the National Leadership Retreat

Subsistent retreats took the same shape, but then venues kept changing, from Akagera Hotel to Kivu Serena Hotel; all lavish environments.

Everything improved. Despite tangible results, ten years later, guided by a frugal mindset, synonymous with Kagame’s leadership, the government decided to stop splurging.

It was then resolved that retreats be held at Gabiro military barracks, Rwanda’s elite School of Infantry. Everyone leaves their conformable life back home. No one drives a car.

All the fancy fuel guzzler SUVs are left behind. Everyone boards a bus. Along the way, morale boosting songs are sung. Buses are full of humor. Jokes are cracked and fun is made of some members.

At the barracks, good food is served, with reasonably good beds, but the environment is simple and starkly not touristic.

In fact, everyone is obliged to attend a morning physical work-out. It is meant to ignite the team’s spirit and generate energy before they begin discussions.

Inside the room, minutes before the retreat starts, participants chant patriotic songs and slogans only the mood to become intense once discussions begin.

“There is always a sense of panic,” one official in the Prime Minister’s office says.

Participants chant patriotic songs before Discussions begin.

Participants chant patriotic songs before Discussions begin.

Poor performers are reprimanded, sometimes shamed. Good performers are recognized.

The dynamics of the retreat always attract decided opinions. Leaders in big positions, including the prime minister, don’t appreciate being waged a finger at and shamed.

However, one minister who did not want to be mentioned, said, “some of us really need to be treated that way, we don’t deliver to our expectations, frankly speaking.”

There is frank talk among officials. A district mayor will complain directly to any government agency blocking his development agenda.

Then the mayor will also complain against a minister. Then the minister will defend himself.

Agency heads will have opportunity to tell off their minister. This is a chance for everyone to explain directly to government such that they could escape personal liability.

The retreat sets a scene for every leader to be held accountable. Ultimately, the retreat is about forging a better future for Rwanda.

For instance, of the 43 resolutions adopted in 2014, only 10% were not implemented.

The organisation, implementation and outcomes of Umwiherero have vastly improved and significant achievements have been recorded.

The focus has been to make  the number of key priorities smaller. This has made it easier for meaningful discussions and effective implementation.

For example, the number of national priorities agreed upon by participants fell from 174 in 2009 to 11 in 2010 and to six in 2011.

The retreats are also credited with significantly improving coordination and cooperation between government ministries and agencies.

This time round, priorities might not be just small in number, but much more challenging and tougher.

As Kagame’s ruling RPF prepares for the next presidential election in less than two years, the pressure to keep the engine running is increasing.

There is thus need to consolidate achievements made and bring in new energies and better plans. The determinant of the outcomes of the retreat are infinite.

The retreat reviews previous year performance and discusses new strategies and sets goals for the coming year.

The retreat reviews previous year performance and discusses new strategies and sets goals for the coming year.