In a leaked confidential cable to Washington on August 5, 2008, the American embassy in Kigali described Bernard Makuza as “affable but ineffectual” (a nice guy but poor at his job). At the time, Makuza was enjoying his eighth year as the Prime Minister of Rwanda.
He served in the post longest since the introduction of the office after the country’s independence in July 1962.
The son of Anastase Makuza, one of the architects of independence – which turned out to be one of the dark pages in Rwanda’s history book, Makuza has lived a life of privilege ever since he was born.
Since 2011, Makuza has been in the Senate, first as vice president, and eventually, but not surprising, as senate president. He and his colleagues’ 8-year mandate ended a few weeks ago and this opened a new era of a 5-year mandate renewable once – par the 2003 constitution as amendment in 2015.
A new Senate is taking shape. 20 members are already known from elections that quietly ended last week, and others appointed by President Paul Kagame, and the consultative Forum for Political Parties.
The remaining six senators will be appointed after a year. But as these positions are filled, the name of Bernard Makuza is nowhere to be seen. This is unusual, since at least the end of the genocide against the Tutsis.
Can he be appointed Minister in the impending cabinet reshuffle? It will be interesting to see how that plays out since he was once a PM. It is hard to work out which position fits him because he has been at the top of some major institutions. He is not the first to be moved from the top to a much lesser position.
Makuza has never had a personal media interview. The encounters he has had with media are only official briefings arranged by his offices. They will usually be after he has received a guest, and they will walk out together to speak to the waiting media.
One particular US embassy cable from a rare meeting held on September 30, 2008, gives hint of what he thinks about the Rwandan media. In that meeting, were only 4 people: US embassy chargé d’Affaires Anne Casper who was with the political affairs officer, and Makuza with his personal assistant, Christine Hategekimana, as notetaker.
The real problem, Makuza declared to the US diplomats, was journalists’ “lack of professionalism”. He added, “We are not like America or Europe, where there are trained journalists”. He continued, so “we see it as our responsibility to train them”.
A Political Genius?
Makuza may have been spelling out what was government policy at the time, but it is the closest it gets to understand his views on the media. He, like many Rwandans, especially officials, keeps his personal views to himself.
Makuza was envoy in Germany when Kagame rose to the Presidency following the ouster of Pasteur Bizimungu in March 2000. He was then recalled and named prime minister.
He turns 58 on September 30 this month. Apart from his wife, Makuza has four children whom he has kept away from the limelight and they spend much of their time outside Rwanda.
Officially, Makuza does not belong to any political party. He was a member of the Rwanda Democratic Movement (MDR), until it was forced to disband in April 2003 for promoting ethnic divisions and genocide ideology. Since then, publicly, he doesn’t associate with any party, but his actions say otherwise.
People who know Makuza describe him as a “political genius” by Rwandan standards especially due to his survival instincts. While many in his former disbanded party opted for confrontation with the dominant Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF), Makuza took his own path that can be divided between “silence” and “cooperation”. He is neither a diehard praise-singer of the powers-that-be, nor critic. He has coined a clever way of staying alive in politics without doing much.
During the decade as PM, Makuza presided over countless events. For the local ones, addressed in Kinyarwanda, Makuza never missed a particular phrase: “Nkuko perezida wa repubulika adahwema kubitwibutsa…” (Just as the President of the Republic always reminds us…)
This statement lives on among many officials, and will probably never go away. All but few government officials have adopted the phrase. Except for the relatively young technocrats, many of whom are western-educated and have not lived through the system’s politics of survival through speechifying.
Now that Makuza’s political road looks to have ended, what next? Over the years, speculation has been rife that Makuza is one of those very few people Kagame is considering handing over to. There are various pointers to this theory, including some we have highlighted above.
But then what does Makuza himself think? It is hard to tell because he doesn’t speak to media.
However, the cable from his meeting with US diplomats back in 2009, shows Makuza knows the presidency is not his place.
Saving Dr Jeanne d’Arc Mujawamariya
In describing his own role, according to the cable, Makuza said that his main job (as PM) was to coordinate executive branch activities and organize periodic cabinet meetings. He said Kagame generally chaired these meetings himself, though that he usually arrived later in the day and often posed questions that had been addressed earlier or were not even on the meeting agenda.
Makuza added that, per the constitution, whenever the president was temporarily out of the country, the prime minister assumed his duties, but that if “anything happened” to the president, then the president of the senate would run the government until it could organize new elections.
In her assessment of Makuza, the US embassy’s chargé d’affaires writes: “While his explanation of presidential succession was unexpected as this is a relatively taboo subject, Makuza’s apparent intent was to highlight the GOR’s adherence to Rwanda’s constitution and rule of law.”
In exercising his duties, The Chronicles has found that Makuza was always very keen on protecting ministers from attack from parliament. In December 2008 for example, a report had been tabled in the Chamber of Deputies showing worrying levels of genocide ideology in schools. Parliament summoned then education minister Dr Jeanne d’Arc Mujawamariya. The report said the ministry was not doing anything about the situation.
Sensing that Dr Mujawamariya would unfairly be subjected to ridicule and embarrassing attacks in the full glare of the media, Makuza privately engaged the House Speaker Dr Jean Damascene Ntawukuriryayo.
Parliament, it is said, had originally planned to call only the Minister of Education, to castigate her about the commission findings. The Prime Minister, our sources say, politely reminded parliamentary officials that the Minister of State for Primary and Secondary Education, Joseph Murekeraho, was, the executive branch’s official most directly concerned with the direction of the nation’s secondary schools and should be called as well. Both officials were subsequently called to testify.
Mention of Makuza’s name attracts the ire of people who used to be members of the MDR party. Some, like Faustin Twagiramungu, accuse him of having been used to destroy the party. On obscure blogs, which are blocked in Rwanda, some have gone as far as alleging that Makuza has blood-relationship with President Kagame.
The alleged blood links have never been substantively verified and may never be. The Americans though, are clear in their view of Makuza, saying in the August 5, 2008 cable: “[Makuza] defers in all matters great and small to President Kagame”.
RPF throws out Dr Jean Damascene Ntawukuriryayo
Makuza spent over a year jobless after his premiership. Then came the 2011 period when a new Senate was to be constituted. Some in the corridors of power expected him to join the Senate, and even be the senate president. Surprisingly, another high profile name at the time was waiting in the queue: Dr Jean Damascene Ntawukuriryayo.
Pure political brinkmanship came into play; as the ruling establishment sought to design the system to be seen as politically balanced. Dr Ntakuriryayo headed the PSD, the second biggest political party and had just lost presidential polls a year earlier. It made sense, at the time, that he goes to head the senate in the spirit of “power-sharing”.
Makuza settled for the Vice-President of the Senate. According to three sources who interacted with him in years that followed, Makuza was visibly an unhappy man. He said very little to anyone else, save for a few people personally known to him.
The one thing every Rwandan with a TV knows about Makuza is his neatly trimmed suits that perfectly fit, making him the perfect gentleman you would want at your event. But after he was relegated to a lower position after heading government business as the PM, Makuza knew there would be no more media appearances, and so the elegant suits disappeared.
Just as his detractors had nearly written him off when he was dropped as PM and not elevated to the senate’s top position, Makuza did return in extraordinary form. The fortunes of another political heavyweight Dr Jean Damasscene Ntawukuriryayo blew away into thin air, suddenly.
Until October 14, 2014, Dr Ntakuriryayo, who had been a key personality in the social democratic party (PSD), including being its presidential candidate in the 2010 polls, was ousted as senate president.
An internal revolt orchestrated by the RPF Secretariat saw Senators Tito Rutaremara and Prof Chrysologue Karangwa file a rare motion for a no confidence vote in Ntawuriryayo. Media houses were told of it minutes into a sitting on the afternoon of the fateful day. The vote was unanimous and lasted a few minutes.
(Editor: Next we will profile Dr Ntawuriryayo)
Everything in the session acted out like a poorly written drama script. Immediately after the ouster, another motion was filed to elect a new Senate president. When the name of Makuza Bernard, who as Senate Vice President, was nominated then seconded, it was very obvious he would be voted senate president.
Finally, after 4 years in as an “unhappy” deputy senate president, Bernard Makuza was back at the national high-table as one of the five most powerful Rwandans: at least going by what is officially written on paper, even though the reality is much more complex.