In my discussion with Dr. Frank Habineza of the Green Party, the media picked up the sound bite where I said a discussion between his party and the ruling party would be akin to a conversation between a grown up and a child.
Habineza claimed that the reason his party wasn’t doing so well is because the RPF doesn’t accept criticism.
I urged him that the real problem with the opposition was a poverty of the imagination. The two ideas are related but different and are visible in our politics. Here’s how.
The old political parties that existed in Rwanda prior to the Genocide and the new ones that set up recently, like Habineza’s, suffer a similar ailment.
One, the historical baggage of the former has robbed it of the confidence necessary to conceive a vision around which to rally Rwandans around; on the other hand, Habineza’s party has not been around long enough to nurture a set of beliefs to do the same.
They both lack conviction but due to different reasons.
Second, the old political parties may be experienced; however, that experience is of no value in today’s political terrain. That is because the law doesn’t allow political mobilisation on the basis of ethnicity and this is the only kind of politics that was practiced in their formative years.
This is why some of the parties that found that they could not find another way to practice politics outside of ethnic left to exile.
This is the history of post-colonial Africa. Africans are yet to learn to mobilise the population on anything other grounds other than ethnicity. This is why once you take away ethnicity from a politician’s political calculus they immediately become politically impotent.
The colonial legacy of divide and rule bequeathed Africans with the understanding that social organisation must take place on ethnic terms. This is the practice in almost all of Africa, except for a few cases like Somalia where the political agency of clans was never supplanted by that of ethnicity.
Of course Rwanda has suffered the worst from that logic. However, the experience in the Congo is very telling. How the Belgians were able to manipulate Joseph Kasavubu to mobilise the Bakongo against Patrice Lumumba in defence of Belgian interests is similarly illustrative.
Most importantly, it helped to weaken the social basis of the independence movement and set the stage for the production of stooges.
The pattern is everywhere in Africa. The only conviction a politician has is that his or her ethnic group should be in power. But what they really mean is that they want to ride their group as a conveyor belt to get political power which they want to use for personal interests.
These are the kinds of leaders – like Kasavubu, Mubutu, Compaore, Habyarimana – that former colonial powers wish for us and they will do anything to help them get to power even if that means orchestrating a coup d’état.
They want leaders who will keep the template of divide and rule they left behind. It helps to ensure continuity of the colonial state. And so, they will foam at the mouth whenever a politician is arrested for mobilising people on ethnic grounds.
Make no mistake. Let’s not pretend as if they don’t know how volatile political mobilisation based on ethnicity is. They do. They also understand very well the kind of stability, continuity, and predictability that comes from a politics where it is absent. How? Because this is what happens in their own countries.
This is the good experience that the old political parties gained from their past. They were aware that the only basis of political mobilisation they knew was toxic to our society, a destruction of unimaginable proportions that they had observed first hand. How were they going to learn a new kind of politics? Or would they lead us towards the door of no return?
In their wisdom, they circumvented the trap. Their decision to enter the coalition offers us all the opportunity to collectively learn to forget the old politics and to learn a new kind of politics: to replace a legacy of politics that is sub-national in character with one where the organising and mobilising ideas create a unity of purpose, institutional growth, and sustainability.
This is admirable. However, the eagerness to take part ought not to stop the political opposition from aspiring for political power as it learns to do politics differently. This means that it should use the time it has in the coalition to build structures across the country upon which to practice its new approach to politics and see how that works out now or in the not so far away future.
This is the poverty of imagination. They share this deficiency with Dr. Habineza’s Green Party. Here’s a party that claims credentials of environmentalism; yet, it was conspicuously silent during a hot controversy this month following the decision by the Rwanda Development Board to hike fees for Gorilla tourism 42-fold from $30 to $1500 for Rwandans.
Does he know the elections are coming up?
The RPF candidate is strong. But I’m sure he wouldn’t mind some competition and the country would be better off for it. But they don’t see any opportunity. Yet, if he sweeps the vote they will cry wolf.
This poverty of imagination is why young political parties tend to wither away. It is akin to the effects of childhood malnutrition. Without ideological conviction, they create briefcase political parties and hope something good happens to them. Any sign of a storm and they fold like cheap tents.
It is either the old guards learning new tricks or the infantile battling malnutrition.
That is the political opposition.