Never mind Kagame, look how Rwanda is empowering diaspora

Never mind Kagame, look how Rwanda is empowering diaspora
By Frederick Golooba-Mutebi Last month Rwanda’s ruling party, the Rwanda Patriotic Front, resoundingly endorsed Paul Kagame as its candidate in this year’s elections. A total of 1,029 delegates out of 1,030 voted for him. The missing vote was due to a spoilt ballot. There is speculation about who spoilt their ballot. Some are arguing it was the candidate, because he would not have wanted to be seen to vote for himself, given he had not entirely warmed up to the entire process that led to endorsement. Snippets of information from the inner sanctums of the RPF since 2013, when the subject of the transition was first broached, suggest that while others were certain about the imperative for him to stick around, he was the one always asking the difficult questions and arguing for not taking anything for granted. His acceptance speech in which he urged Rwandans to work hard to eliminate the factors that led to the current situation and to ensure “some kind of transition” during the next seven years, seems to point to that. Whatever the truth of the matter, short of the skies falling on us and there being no elections as a result, we now know who will be president of Rwanda come August 5, when all the voting will have been wrapped up. The four other candidates, three of whom will run as independents with no political party structures to support their campaigns, and one of whom leads a tiny political organisation with highly limited reach, are merely spicing up the contest. Those who may be seeking long careers in politics are very probably aiming to attain the all-important “face recognition” in preparation for future races when they may run against conceivably beatable RPF candidates. Others are probably in it for the fun and excitement that comes with being “umukandida.” As we prepare for the actual race to begin on July 14, we are each focusing on aspects of the process that speak to our own individual preoccupations, given what we know about presidential campaigns and elections in this part of the world. If there is anything we can guarantee prior to any election in our region, it is that someone or some individuals out there will be worrying about not whether the votes will be stolen, but how they will be stolen. And so the process of identifying and designating candidates’ agents for every polling station becomes as fraught as the campaigning itself. In Rwanda, however, whether votes will be stolen or not, has never been an issue. There is a certain trust in the basic integrity of the organs and individuals in charge of the country’s electoral processes that totally disarms those of us who hail from contexts where the general public takes it for granted that so-called independent electoral commissions are simply incapable of ensuring that electoral processes are not only free and fair, but also transparent. In Rwanda, nothing shows the level of trust in the electoral commission and in turn its own trust in Rwandans better than the current proposals for how Rwandans in the diaspora will be facilitated to vote. It is expected that up to 40,000 Rwandans spread across the globe will be able to participate. That Rwandans in the diaspora who want to vote usually do so, is hardly news. What is, is the electoral commission’s willingness and capacity to innovate to ensure that as many who want to participate as possible, can. Up until now, only those living in countries where Rwanda has embassies have had the opportunity to vote, in processes overseen by embassy staff. This year, the electoral commission is extending opportunities for participation to those living in countries where Rwanda does not have embassies, provided they add up to a minimum of 40 eligible voters. Eligibility itself is not difficult to achieve, as one can now register as a voter through an online portal. To create a polling station where they live, all they have to do is to organise themselves and choose three volunteers who will oversee the voting and vote counting and also take responsibility for sending the results to the designated embassy for onward transmission to Kigali. There will be no embassy officials or representatives of foreign observer missions to ensure that everything goes well. The ballots and tallying sheets are to be sent from Kigali via the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ system for handling documentation to and from embassies. These innovations are a response to pressure by diaspora Rwandans to be enabled to vote wherever they live, and of late by presidential candidates concerned that their supporters in the diaspora should not be disenfranchised. It is easy to focus on the details and forget about their significance. For me, it is the significance we should focus on. First, that the electoral commission can trust Rwandans wherever they live to manage on their own without supervision from above, points to the achievement of a political maturity that is difficult to associate with a typical African election involving a typical African government in a typical African country. Second, if Rwanda can do it, the rest of us can. It is simply a matter of the choices we make.

This was first run in the East African. Frederick Golooba-Mutebi is a Kampala-based researcher and writer on politics and public affairs. E-mail:

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