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Umushyikirano, Rwanda’s Participatory Democracy In Action

by Vincent Gasana
3:07 pm

Dr Jean Chrisosthome Ngabitsinze

For the two days of Tuesday and Wednesday, last week, the Kigali Convention Centre (KCC), housed what is, outside Switzerland, the best example of participatory democracy, anywhere in the world. That may sound startling to anyone who believes what they read about Rwanda. But nothing better illustrates the gulf between outsiders’ depiction of the country’s political system and the reality, than the annual Umushyikirano. 

Loosely translated, Umushyikirano is a dialogue, a national dialogue. But that does not fully describe it. The event, which is enshrined in the nation’s constitution, is derived from Rwandan history and culture, a way of resolving communal problems through consensus.

After the deruption of the Sars-Cov-2 pandemic, 2024, is able to welcome the 19th iteration of Umushyikirano, as it has always been intended, the governed coming face to face with the nation’s leadership. 

This year, as every year, since the first Umushyikirano, in 2003, the two day event starts with a presidential address. During his address, in 2012, President Kagame reminded his audience, what Umushyikirano was.

“The objective of Umushyikirano, is to bring together our different perspectives, our different capacities, different way of doing things, even those with different political views, because they are often different, our aim is that we come together, understand one another, find a point of consensus, a point that leads to the advancement of our nation, the wellbeing of Rwandans, and our development…That’s what Umushyikirano means…”

He wryly observed that traditionally in Rwanda, Umushyikirano involved gatthering around an earthenware pot, from which they shared a drink, as they talked. While refereshments for particiapants are provided at the modern Umushyikirano however, there is a distinct absence of drinks that have gone through any process of fermentation.

“This dialogue is different, it’s akin to a call to arms. A call to arms to fight against poverty, ill health, hunger, a call to arms for development…Realising self worth, self reliance, doesn’t just happen…It is a struggle…it has a very huge cost. It’s expensive and not just in monetary expense…”

“It’s expensive, because the more you struggle for selfworth, the more you are confronted by many who don’t wish it for you…The more you want to move forward, the more you are confronted by those who want to pull you back, to where you had come. The more you want to increase your wealth the more others dig a hole for you. The more you build peace and stability, the more others, mostly from outside, want to destabalise you…which why I say, that we should also have Umushyikirano with outsiders…”

Somewhere within his address, usually towards the end, the President, who chairs the meeting, delivers a state of the nation briefing. It is a state of the nation presentation with a difference. The formal statement of how the nation stands is quickly outlined, and most of the remaining time is devoted to evaluating, and taking the temperature of Rwandan society.

A significant feature of Umushyikirano has been recognising the non Rwandans, who have made or who make a contribution to Rwanda. Alongside that however, the President shares with the nation, his assessment of whatever threats there maybe. One of these threats, is perhaps the extent to which powers beyond the Great Lakes region, affect the region’s peace and stability.

This was particularly evident in 2012, and President Kagame touched on it, in his Umushyikirano address.

“I should also add that while Umushyikirano is to bring together, Rwandans, with different capacities, different viewpoints, many differences but with a common goal, I think there also ought to be a dialogue, often in fact, between Rwandans, and foreign nations, because foreign nations intervene in the lives of Rwandans…”

“We should have Umushyikirano with outsiders who constantly intervene into Rwandans’ lives, with attendant consequences of that intervention…There should be an understanding with them. We cannot come to an understanding amongst ourselves, only to have outsiders come and intervene in our daily lives. We should have a dialogue with them too…”

Over a decade and many iterations of Umushyikirano later, in 2024, and his words still resonate. As in 2012, the president began his address by welcoming representatives of friendly nations, who have played, and play a part in Rwanda’s development, and thanking them. 

“I would like to especially thank our friends, in different countries, with whom we cooperate in some many things that contribute to the advancement of the nation…”

Almost inevitably however, he was obliged to return to the conflict raging in neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), reiterating the points he had to make in 2012, all of twelve years earlier. 

He gave a glimpse of what must have been a somewhat electric discussion, where among those present were the the presidents of the DRC, Felix Tshisekedi, president Kaguta Museveni of Uganda, and others. 

“One time we had a meeting, and we were having an argument” he related, “of course, there was contradiction with some of these people’s argument. I asked specifically that one responsible for Congo [DRC], and said, ‘we are not going to address anything, unless you come out clearly, to tell us the facts about this situation. I asked him, are these people in M23, Congolese or not?’ And he said to me, ‘absolutely, these are Congolese’ I said, ‘fine, so how do they become Rwanda’s problem?’” 

These external threats are however, almost an unwelcome intrusion on Umushyikirano, which is a time for an inter-Rwandan dialogue, structured in a quintessentially Kinyarwanda way.

Here, the exercise of democratic rights, is not a waving of placards at a demonstration, or loud aggressive shouts of demands, or angry outpouring of grievances. It is rather, an unspoken agreement, that from the head of state downwards, everyone in a position of leadership, is accountable to the humblest among the governed.

It is a time of self examination, self evaluation. Rwandans from all walks of life take part. No effort is spared to enable the majority, who are not able to be at the convention centre, to participate fully. Some gather in the different stadia around the country, from where they are linked to KCC, others watch live streaming, and send in comments, questions, demands and requests. Those without an internet connection, listen on radio, and text in their messages. 

What is eventually decided at imishyikirano, as they are referred to in plural, is incorporated into government policy, meaning that Rwandans not only in Rwanda itself, but around the world, are not only able to affect specific policy, but how national policies are shaped.   

It is participatory democracy, exercised politely, even deferentially, in accordance with Kinyarwanda culture, but forthrightly, and firmly. 

Interventions almost always begins with thanks for all that has been done, before the criticism, or demand for the reason of failure. If the answer from this or that minister is less than satisfactory, the chair steps in, on behalf of whichever member of the public it might be, and pushes for a better answer. 

Primarily, Imishyikirano are a time when the public can speak directly, to the head of state. Throught the year, the president can and does address the people. At Imishyikirano, it becomes a two way conversation. The president addresses the people, and they tell him what is on their minds. No holds are barred, yet everyone is respectful of everyone else. 

For an outsider, the self discipline, the politeness, the due deference, lacks the chaos they would associate with democracy. Rwandans however, would have it no other way, in fact, they would see any such chaos as getting in the way of their opportunity to exercise their rights. 

Anyone wishing to have a good understanding of Rwandan politics, could no better than observing Imishyikirano. 

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