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“Consensual Democracy” in Post Genocide Rwanda: Evaluating the March 2001 District Elections


Ever since the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) came to power in 1994 in the wake of a genocide in which 800,000 people died, its government has mainly been assessed in relation to the way it has faced the legacy of the genocide and maintained stability. Understandably, the Rwandan regime has been preoccupied with its own security, especially as thousands of génocidaires reorganised in the Congo, initially supported by Mobutu Sese Seko, and then by both Laurent and Joseph Kabila. And there is no doubt that the threat posed by the ex-FAR and Interahamwe rebels in the DRC is serious, and that little has been done by the international community to counter it. However, it does not always justify the tight domestic political control still exercised by the RPF dominated government in Rwanda.

The international community, burdened by its own feelings of guilt for failing to stop the genocide in 1994 has accepted the RPF’s view that security imperatives require military dominance and that genuine political liberalisation will have to wait. Combined with an assumption that the RPF represents a "new leadership" determined to invent a new political model rooted in Rwandan culture, this has produced an implicit international consensus which gives the RPF almost unlimited time to achieve its proclaimed goals.

The RPF regime has consistently asserted its intention to convert its highly militarised system of government into a civilian democracy rooted in ethnic reconciliation, purged of ethnic stereotypes and hatreds, and equipped with a new constitution. A time frame for the transition, originally set for five years, has been extended to nine years, to July 2003. The district elections conducted on 6 March 2001 were seen by both the RPF and the international community as an important stage in that transition process. This report examines in detail the conduct of those elections and draws some conclusions about the direction in which Rwanda’s political reconstruction is proceeding. Those tentative conclusions will be tested in further ICG reports on the transition process, to be published over the next several months.

The RPF and the Rwandan Government of National Unity (GNU) that it controls claim to be attempting to break from the country’s colonial and post-colonial political inheritance. Since November 2000, they have been decentralising government institutions and power with the declared aim of destroying the political machinery that facilitated the genocide. The administrative organisation of the country is being changed and newly created districts are becoming the focus of development efforts. Resources are to be allocated to the new districts through collective decision-making at administrative levels that are closer to citizens. The objective of this policy is said to be local empowerment and mobilisation of people to take the destiny of their communities into their own hands. The selected political model is called "consensual democracy".

There was also a more important goal in holding the March elections, which was to begin to develop a new RPF "cadre" in the countryside and to build the party’s political base ahead of presidential and parliamentary elections in 2003. Great care was taken, therefore, in the organisation of the elections. A RPF-controlled National Electoral Commission (NEC) supervised the entire process and delivered superbly organised polls. The national participation rate was over 90 per cent, and very few electoral malpractices were registered by local and international observers.

Yet, these elections were far from satisfactory by any democratic standards. The NEC abused its powers to veto unwanted candidates and guarantee that only supporters of government policies were selected. Voters could choose between 8,175 NEC-screened candidates to fill slightly more than 2,700 district counsellor positions. But the five senior executives of each district, and the mayor of the capital, Kigali, were chosen by electoral colleges rather than by popular vote. Eighty per cent of these electoral colleges were composed of cell and sector officials who themselves had gained their positions in rather undemocratic elections in 1999. And their choices for district positions heavily favoured the status quo: 81 per cent of those elected were incumbent heads of communes (bourgmestres), previously appointed by the government.

The tight political control exercised over the district elections is at least partly explained by the fact that Rwanda remains a country at war. The Rwandan civil war has been largely exported to Congo's territory since 1994 but the security threat is not only external. The Ex-FAR and Interahamwe militias occasionally recruit inside Rwanda, and launch attacks across the border. Some segments of the population still share the “Hutu power” ideology that exploded seven years ago into the campaign to exterminate the country’s minority Tutsi population. One of the screens exercised by the RPF and government through the NEC was therefore to ensure that only counsellors and district executives who endorse the policy of “national unity and reconciliation” were elected.

But by constricting political freedoms under the motto of national unity and reconciliation, the RPF risks eroding the very foundations of its own policies and dampening hopes for Rwanda’s recovery. Rwandans have shown, for example by their acceptance of Community Development Committees (CDCs), that they are willing to take over management of their own communities when given the opportunity, training and resources. But the omnipotence of the security services and the political control applied to basic political freedoms in the name of national goals have become counter-productive. They have driven government opponents outside the country, and risk feeding the external threat that the government claims to fight most. In this context "consensual democracy" has become the imposition of one party’s ideology.

It is time to look to look at governance issues in Rwanda from a fresh perspective and to acknowledge that the focus on external security has restricted reform of internal politics. Of course the regional security context has to be taken into account and the international community must do much more to assist in the Disarmament, Demobilisation, Reintegration and Rehabilitation (DDRR) of the Hutu rebels. It should also exercise diplomatic pressure to speed up the peace processes in the DRC and Burundi, both of which have important implications for Rwanda.

But nine years on, a change of course is necessary if the transition is to succeed. Without the acceptance of opposition voices in the internal debate and the eventual return and reintegration of the Hutu groups, political life in Rwanda will remain distorted and unhealthy. The ongoing writing of the new constitution is a good opportunity for the regime to show its willingness to increase political freedom.

International donors, whose aid is vital to resource-poor Rwanda, can make an important contribution to Rwanda's political reconstruction. They need to use diplomatic pressure on Rwanda’s neighbours to improve its security but also to develop a critical dialogue with the government on the central issue of political freedom, and to support Rwandan efforts with funds and technical assistance to lay the foundations for a more stable future.


To Rwanda’s international donors

1. Pressure the signatories of the Lusaka agreement to comply with their commitment to stop supporting and disarm the ex FAR and Interahamwe and give strong financial and political support to DDRR processes.

2. Give financial and technical support to help create an efficient election observation program capable of monitoring the 2003 national polls.

3. Begin a critical dialogue with the government of Rwanda on the issue of political freedoms in the country, setting clear democratic standards and benchmarks for the continuation of financial support, and offer assistance and expertise in reaching these standards and benchmarks. In particular, encourage the government of Rwanda to:

a. Provide genuine autonomy to the new local government institutions and free their management from interference by the military and the security services.

b. Urgently establish a legal framework to professionalise, define a role for, control the behaviour of, and make accountable the community-based Local Defence Forces.

c. Review and amend the electoral law to guarantee the independence of the National Electoral Commission.

d. Publicise in advance all election-related government activities to allow monitoring by independent observers.

e. Liberalise political party activities up to the district levels to facilitate reconstruction of a genuine opposition. Allow full national political activity, including public rallies, at least six months before the 2003 national election.

f. Create the office of an independent ombudsman with powers to offer advice and recommendations in case of conflicting interpretations of laws and procedures between the government and the citizens.

g. Include safeguards for political freedoms and clear limits on the role and influence of the security services in the future constitution.

Nairobi/Brussels, 9 October 2001


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