Decentralisation and policy advocacy in Rwanda

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Continuing our series on Rwanda, Benjamin Chemouni suggests how we can move beyond the polemic discourse that so often surrounds Rwanda, understanding the insecurities of the RPF regime, and making policy advice more palatable. Benjamin is a PhD candidate in the Department of International Development, at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). His article, ‘Rwanda under the RPF: Assessing Twenty Years of Post-Conflict Governance’, is published in a Special Issue for the Journal of Eastern African Studies commemorating twenty years since the genocide in Rwanda.

Reading the myriad of articles surrounding the 20th commemoration of the genocide demonstrates that, perhaps, no country in Africa attracts as many polarized views as Rwanda. The topic of Rwandan decentralisation is no exception.

Supporters have heralded decentralisation as an example of sound institutional reform that succeeded in transferring an unprecedented amount of power and resources to the local level in a country that has, historically, been extremely centralised. What is more, they argue, the use of resources are monitored and evaluated, especially thanks to the performance contracts – or imihigo – signed between the President and the district mayors, and duly enforced. The speed of this decentralisation is also impressive, they point out, having been largely rolled out between 2000 and 2010. Detractors, however, have argued that  Rwandan decentralisation is simply a way for the political centre to penetrate deeper into society. To date, they highlight, decentralisation has provided few opportunities for popular participation. The most pessimistic analysts see in such top-down undemocratic governance and pervasive state control a repetition of the bad habits of the past, possibly sowing seeds for future violence.

A more balanced conclusion would suggest that, as is often the case in Rwanda, decentralisation has been successful but reform is needed to improve on this success, and to make it sustainable. However, salutary advice on this topic from scholars, activists, and development professionals is hindered by the bipolarity of analysis on Rwanda. Advocacy is often stuck between blunt and uniform condemnations, or praises that do not dare to engage with the Rwandan leadership on crucial reforms. Unfortunately, this means that despite the huge amount of academic attention Rwanda is attracting, relatively few analyses of the country constitute a workable foundation for policy improvement. The Rwandan leadership is in part to blame for this situation, as its intolerant approach to criticism continues to hamper the emergence of productive policy discussions.

If analysts want to maximize their impact on policy making, they must seek to understand the Rwandan leadership’s engrained sense of vulnerability, which can be traced back to the RPF’s origins. In a recent article on the Rwanda decentralisation  I developed a framework that helps in this regard, enabling people to assess the political leeway that the Rwandan leadership possess, and the best strategy for doing effective advocacy. Here I highlight two key aspects of that framework.

Firstly, the RPF has faced the daunting challenge – given its origins – of establishing its legitimacy since the genocide. It can certainly not claim legitimacy on the basis of ethnicity as previous regimes have, given that the Tutsi-dominated RPF govern a population that is predominantly Hutu. Equally, claiming democratic legitimacy is difficult given that political space in Rwanda is closed. Instead, the RPF has based its legitimacy on its capacity to deliver, i.e., to provide a better life tomorrow than today. But development is not only pursued for the sake of legitimacy: the government also hopes that by giving everyone a stake in the national economy they will lessen the chance of future violence.

Thus, in the mind of Rwandan leaders, development can go a long way to resolving the country’s ethnic question. This explains the paramount importance of development and, more particularly, decentralisation in Rwanda. It also helps us to understand the spread of performance contracts and persistent efforts by the Rwandan leadership to curb possibilities for clientelism and local elite capture of the state by promoting a technocratic local elite. Rwanda bucks the trend of many African countries that use decentralisation to create patronage opportunities.

Secondly, the trajectory of the RPF is crucially important. As a rebel group formed by the sons and daughters of Tutsi refugees who fled ethnic violence since 1959, survival has always been at the heart of the RPF’s DNA. War, genocide, and the northern insurgency that lasted until 2000, have reinforced a deep sense of vulnerability within the movement. As a consequence, political turmoil, and even political space, is seen as a threat to the political survival and the physical preservation of the RPF’s leaders and supporters.

If we understand this trajectory, we begin to comprehend the movement’s reluctance to open up political space and their sensitivity to disorder. Politics in Rwanda is not only about politics; it is also about survival. In this respect, we can see an interesting potential parallel with Israel – a state that has been constantly challenged militarily and whose population has been historically shaped by the experience of genocide. Despite being an effective state with one of the best armies in the world, Israel responds strongly – sometimes disproportionately – to the slightest challenge to its security. Rwanda’s swift interventions in Congo, and its violent reaction to challenges from the diplomatic corps, the media, or the academy, are revealing of a similar logic.

Disorder and political space are seen as sources of vulnerability and, conversely, development is seen as a route to survival and resilience. They are the two faces of the same coin. Understanding this helps us to move beyond the dichotomous discourse that surrounds Rwanda and make a meaningful impact upon Rwandan policy-makers by appreciating what is likely to be non-negotiable for the political elite and, conversely, what can be harnessed to bring change.

Returning to decentralisation, we can see that one of its shortcomings is the lack of opportunities it offers for popular participation in local governance. Sensitizing the elite on that issue can be accelerated if one demonstrates that the current top-down approach is detrimental to development in the long run as it renders planning inefficient. Conversely, framing the issues in terms of opening political participation is likely to be unproductive given the elite’s persistent sense of vulnerability.

Going beyond the case of decentralisation, the same framework can be applied to the debate surrounding Kagame’s possible third term. From the perspective of policy advocacy, the current discourse is ill-framed. Instead of focussing on the importance of adhering to the constitution, a more effective strategy would be to emphasise how a third term might make the current elite more vulnerable in Rwanda by stressing that when power is institutionalised, it is rendered more secure. Some in the RPF and their followers might take more convincing, fearing that without Kagame at the helm, order and security will suffer. In such cases, a narrative highlighting the greater importance for all involved of supporting a Rwanda secure enough to survive beyond Kagame’s rule might be more useful.

Rwanda’s trajectory in the last twenty years has been impressive, all the more so for the fact that it has been achieved by walking a narrow path forged in the midst of an urgent need to create legitimacy, the torments of the genocide experience, and more generally the deep distrust permeating Rwandan society. Change in Rwanda is certainly needed and decentralisation is no exception, but advocacy for such change has to take into account the elite’s deep-rooted sense of vulnerability to be effective. 

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