The opposition Social Democratic Front (SDF), destabilised by the mass exodus of its militants, most of whom have become the target of separatist militias, is divided over its participation in the local elections of 9 February.
Louise Mushikiwabo: ‘Democracy is in crisis’
There is no question that Louise Mushikiwabo’s remit as Rwanda’s foreign minister is tough. Crises are brewing in neighbouring countries, and international donors, who fund 17% of the current government budget, are muttering about the need for presidential term limits as President Paul Kagame could now stay in power until 2034.
But on a rainy evening in Mushikiwabo’s office on the top of one of Kigali’s biggest hills, she appears at ease. She pivots from one subject to another with impressive agility. “Democracy is in crisis all over the world,” she says, referring to Britain’s vote to leave the European Union and the election of Donald Trump in the United States. “So everybody is looking for the best way to govern and to be governed. But somehow the same countries that are soul searching and confused, they are the ones coming to us telling us what to do.”
Mushikiwabo is talking about the international backlash to Rwanda’s 2015 referendum that changed the constitution to abolish presidential term limits. This vote was met with scolding from international partners, who had just reinstated budget support after suspending it when Kigali was found to be supporting the Mouvement du 23 Mars rebellion in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Choruses of critics said the referendum had been rigged in favour of President Kagame, who received a staggering 99% of the vote.
Stability is the priority
“I wonder why [there] is the need to absolutely create opposition to President Kagame or even for President Kagame himself to create opposition to himself,” Mushikiwabo says. “How can President Kagame say: ‘I’m picking so and so’?,” she continues. “That’s not the process. He can give his views. His party can express itself, but this whole democracy notion becomes confusing for us.”
Rwanda’s stability is a crucial point for Mushikiwabo. “Our choice is not to have politicians fight – our choice is to disagree but keep going with rebuilding the country. That’s the choice,” she says.
“Our choice is not
to have politians fight –
our choice is
to keep going”
Rwanda’s foreign policy is “about handling to the maximum the opportunities, taking care of the challenges, understanding our region,” says Mushikiwabo. “We’re a country that’s very open to integration for many reasons.”
Rwanda has been busy cementing friendships. In March, Kagame made a state visit to China to hold bilateral talks with China’s President Xi Jinping about economic cooperation. “The discussion was about upgrading: What are we going to do more? How does Rwanda take advantage of the huge amount of money agreed in Johannesburg under the China-Africa forum? Because it’s a big basket,” Mushikiwabo says. “We had already submitted a number of mostly infrastructure and health projects – like the building of hospitals, some feeder roads in the Kigali area.”
An eye on Addis Ababa
Another country Kigali has been moving closer towards is Ethiopia. At the end of April, Kagame and his wife Janet hosted Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn in Kigali. During the visit, the two governments signed 11 bilateral agreements in areas such as extradition, legal assistance, tourism and health. Ethiopia’s plans to export more electricity to the region have also drawn interest from Rwanda. “Ethiopia can provide a lot to this region,” says Mushikiwabo. “So sometimes I wonder if we shouldn’t find the right amounts of money and just build solid transmission lines from Ethiopia to Rwanda.”
While the monetary and political union of the East African Community provides great benefits to Rwanda including better trade links, instability in Burundi and the DRC could spell headaches for Kigali. The political crisis sparked by Burundi’s President Pierre Nkurunziza, when he started a contested third term in power, drove tens of thousands of Burundians into Rwanda. While this crisis has mostly died down, it is in danger of resurfacing. Faultlines in Burundi’s military are in danger of starting a larger conflict.
But it is the DRC that most concerns Mushikiwabo. “It’s difficult to predict what’s going to happen in the DRC,” she says. The current uncertainty about when and how President Joseph Kabila will step down is contributing to instability.
“We had the [feeling that the crisis was escalating] before the end of last year at the expiry of the president’s term,” she says. “President Kabila has said he will step down at the end of 2017, which means we should walk back and look at what steps are needed. I’m sure there is a plan from President Kabila and his political family. Then there is the passing of Etienne Tshisekedi, which has brought another whole complicated political element to the discussion. And then you look at… I don’t need to say how big the country is, but different parts of the DRC probably want different things. So it’s really a very complicated situation.”
Looking ahead on the home front, Mushikiwabo – a government minister since 2008 – says she wants to “solidify institutions, to do everything not to lose any of the gains we have made and to start thinking of innovating. Especially economically we have to innovate.”
The April commemoration of Rwanda’s genocide more than 23 years ago causes many in the country to reflect on the progress that has been made since those dark days. From her office overlooking the flickering lights of Kigali in the distance, Mushikiwabo says: “It’s a country that has defied so many odds and so many challenges and you almost see the worst of human beings and the best of human beings.”
From the June 2017 print edition