In a popular café in Rwanda’s capital Kigali, a mixed group of about ten, have turned their seats to face a large television screen.
All around the busy café, other people in their twos, ones, are behaving in the same way. Every so often, those in groups, turn to each other in animated discussion, then, rapt attention back to the screen. At any other time, you would guess, rightly, that there was a football much going on. But this is Umushyikirano 2019, in its 17th year, how has it changed as a teenager?
Umushyikirano, literally, a gathering, or to give it its official title, the National Dialogue Council (NDC) is enshrined in the country’s constitution and is one of the most important events on the Rwandan political calendar.
Chaired by the President, the NDC is one of the most important events on the Rwanda political calendar.
The president sets the tone of the meeting, which he opens with the State of the Nation address. Since 2016 when it opened, upwards of 1,000 Rwandans drawn from all four corners of the land, and the world, converge in the Kigali Convention Centre, KCC as it has come to be known locally, to discuss issues of national and local concern.
The NDC is arguably the largest exercise in participatory Democracy anywhere, ironic for a country that too often stands accused of “autocratic government.”
It allows ordinary Rwandans’ direct involvement in determining national policy. Many of the concerns, ideas, or suggestions expressed at Umushyikirano, are incorporated into policy. In some instances, the decisions for change, based on the issues raised, are agreed during the discussions.
It is a broadly open, and inclusive process. Those not in KCC, are linked to the main event via television screens, others participate through various social media platforms, facebook, twitter and SMS particular favourites.
The youth who have an enviable platform in Rwanda, have at their disposal the impressive Intare conference centre.
From their comfortable seats, amidst streaming somewhat entitled demands on their government, they also demonstrate just what extraordinary potential there is within the so called youth bulge, when barriers to their full participation within the body politic are removed.
There are expectant requests that fledgling businesses be supported further, and this being Rwanda, there are poignant jaw dropping personal stories. Stories like the eloquent and powerful testimony of Maurice Mukiza, a newly qualified civil engineer.
To applause of encourage from his well informed peers, Mukiza explained that he was the third child of the incongruously named Major-General Pacifique Ntawunguka, a father of whom he has reason to be less than proud.
Following the death of Sylivestre Mudacumura at the hands of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) armed forces, Ntawunguka became the commander of the self styled Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR).
“Mr President” he explained, in a deliberate tone, “I want to thank our nation for looking after me and my siblings, as it looks after every other Rwandan, educating as it educates every other Rwanda, without anyone ever troubling us about our father, even mentioning him.”
“My elder brother” he continued, “was put through University at government expense, and is now on an MA scholarship in China. My younger sister is studying Pharmacy in Ghana, and I am recently qualified as a civil engineer.”
“I don’t understand how anyone can prefer a life of a fugitive, instead of a peaceful, secure life in Rwanda. I would advise all my peers never to listen to any misleading voices whispering in their ears.”
“And” he added, “I cannot end without calling all Rwandans, including my father wherever they may be, whether in the forests, or in other countries, to lay down their arms, and come home, and be part of national building…”
At the time of the first of Umushyikirano in 2004, the FDLR, composed of the former genocidal forces of Habyarimana, including the rabidly depraved Interahamwe militias, who spearheaded the 1994 genocide against Tutsi, still posed a significant danger to Rwanda’s wellbeing.
Over the years, often in the face of a deafening cacophony of condemnation from the major International powers, through a variety of operations, which have included repatriation of tens of thousands of former FDLR rebels, Rwanda has reduced the FDLR threat to a diehard rump of what it once was.
As with any country, Rwanda sets national security as its first priority. Perhaps more than another nation, Rwanda can justifiably claim to greater reason to prioritise this first duty of any government worth the name.
It is a duty it has fulfilled so well, that at the 17th Umushyikirano, rather than warn of security threats, in his State of the Nation address, the head of state can assure the country that despite external threats to stability, the nation stands secure and ready to see off any who would threaten that security.
It is an assurance that clearly resonates with the national mood. At the 17th Umushyikirano, most voice development aspirations. And these too are different in tone from those one would have heard in earlier Umushyikirano.
Now it is young entrepreneurs like Eugene Mukeshimana, who on graduating as a Telecom engineer, and finding no work, decided to band together with his friends, in start up exporting chillies to Europe.
Despite the improving situation in the country, Mukeshimana complains of a lack of sufficient Research and Development in the country, and storage facilities in the country.
Almost all other complaints, suggestions and ideas are in similar vein. Now that access to health and education is virtually universal, the demand is now on improving the quality of these services, or expanding them.
Where there are clinics, people want health centres. Where there were too few secondary schools, people express their gratitude and ask for vocational training centres.
Visions 2020 and 2050 are part of the general lexicon from village to towns and major cities.
At Umushyikirano 17, one feels the change in Rwandan society. There is need, in some cases great need, but from their own testimonies, their demands, it is clear that people not only feel significant changes in their lives, but, a confidence that the many remaining challenges that remain will be met.
When in concluding speech, President Kagame declares that the next year will be even better, the sustained applause suggests that he is at one with his audience.