October 20, 2019

How Dr Jean Damascene Ntawukuriryayo Orchestrated His Political Downfall


President Paul Kagame chats with the President of Senate, Dr Jean Damascene Ntawukuriryayo, outside an event at parliamentary buildings in Kigali, August 14, 2013 (Photo by Village Urugwiro)

At campaign rallies on DAY THREE of the 2010 presidential election season, on July 23, in Gisagara and later Nyaruguru districts, the Social Democratic Party (PSD) presidential candidate arrived to noticeable enthusiastic crowds. This was the second election since the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi.

The candidate was Dr Jean Damascene Ntawukuriryayo. At the time, he was also the PSD secretary general and had been vice president in the chamber of deputies.

In the race for the country’s highest and most powerful office was incumbent President, Paul Kagame backed by his Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) party and several other smaller parties in the coalition. Senator Prosper Higiro was the Liberal Party (PL) candidate and Dr Mukabaramba Alvera represented PPC party.

At rallies in Gasagara and Nyaruguru, Ntawukuriryayo, a medical doctor and academic, made campaign speeches that sent shockwaves in the RPF camp. The incidents that took place in the days that followed proved exactly that.

And as The Chronicles reports, that speech marked the beginning of a slow and steady political downfall for a man who had gained fame as the combative ‘no nonsense health inspector’ when he was health minister. He is widely credited for the success of the national health insurance scheme, establishing order in the business of pharmacies and hygiene in hotels.

Dr Ntawukuriryayo, on that day, told his supporters that PSD was the initiator of the idea for a national health insurance scheme. He said the idea was mooted back in 1992 as one of the party’s flagship projects for Rwanda.

Of course, the crowd Gisagara and Nyaruguru cheered him on. Seated a few meters away was PSD campaign manager Stanislas Kamanzi, who was environment minister at the time. He is currently Rwanda’s High Commissioner in Nigeria.

Another PSD heavyweight at the rally was the usually calm Dr Vincent Biruta, who was at the time president of the Senate – currently environment minister.

Enter Prof Chrysologue Karangwa

When news filtered through that Friday and the weekend that Ntawukuriryayo was taking credit for a program the RPF has promoted as its own for years, the ruling party’s machinery swung into action.

The week that followed, RPF political machine reportedly started collecting dirt on PSD. It was, and is still considered the second biggest party. Its candidate in the race, Ntawukuriryayo, was thought at the time to be the only formidable challenger against incumbent Kagame.

On Monday July 26, 2010, election commission chief Prof Chrysologue Karangwa convened a meeting in Rwamagana district. It was for NEC officials in eastern province to review progress of the election campaigns. The dominant topic in that meeting was PSD party.

Speaker after another accused PSD of engaging in illegal campaign tactics. A female official complained that PSD was wasting too much of their time as they have not been able to keep to the schedules. She said they campaigned beyond the stipulated time of 6pm.

A male official accused PSD of distributing campaign photos, posters and fliers randomly and at all times – even when they have no rallies planned.

Another female official claimed the PSD campaign team was posting campaign materials like photos and posters on people’s houses – and that the owners often complained that they do not want candidates to put such material on their homes.

PSD also stood accused of distributing campaign materials in markets where they are not holding rallies. It was also claimed that PSD people were giving posters and photos to school children – asking them to take them to their parents.

All these tactics were illegal under Article 33 and 34 of the election law governing at the time. Many things were forbidden including using state resources, putting campaign materials in places that are not allowed (these places were however not specified), supplying money, and basing campaign messages on any form of divisionism. In total, there are twelve issues outlined under these two Articles that constituted acts that are forbidden.

The allegations against PSD were widely reported in the local media. In interviews, PSD campaign chief Kamanzi, dismissed the reports, adding that they would treat them as rumours since NEC had not communicated officially to PSD.

Ntawukuriryayo promises to remove quota of 30% for women

During 2010 election campaigns: Dr Jean Damascene Ntawukuriryayo poses with a group of tourists from El Paso Texas, United States who were visiting Nyaruguru. It is the tourists themselves who insisted on posing for photos with him (Photo by Rwanda News Agency)

While mud was being thrown at him, Ntawukuriryayo also intensified campaign rhetoric. On August 3, 2010, Ntawukuriryayo had interview with the Rwanda News Agency, which was widely circulated. In it, he claimed that 90 percent of what is contained in the 2003 constitution are PSD ideas.

Adding fuel to an already inflamed political atmosphere, he said: “We have been proposing things which have been done within the government since 1994. The abolition of the death penalty was part of our manifesto in 1991. Some of the roads that have been rehabilitated were part of our manifesto. It is known and it has been said PSD contributed 90 percent of all the concepts of the constitution which is governing this country. Then Mutuelle de Sante [the health insurance scheme]. We agreed in 1994 to govern together and each party had to contribute ideas through consultation with its members. People can criticise whatever they want but our contribution has been there [and] it is going to be there whatever happens even after August 9 (election date)”.

On the campaign trail, Ntawukuriryayo had also proposed that the 30 percent constitutional quota for women in leadership be scrapped. Instead, as he defended it in media interviews, he said: “In 2003, we set up a mechanism to promote women at all levels of representation and governance. It was too early for [competitive politics]. But now if we are saying we have built the capacity, we have promoted women and we have reached a level where equity between men and women is not questionable in Rwanda we are proposing that women in parliament be voted through their parties. It will [help us] avoid going through many mechanisms of voting people to represent others. We want to exercise the leadership through the political parties as agreed in the country”.

He added: “If we decide that 50 percent of the list of people in PSD proposed for election should be women, whatever is won should be equally shared between men and women. We should be building that and we should actually ask women to build that confidence of competition with their brothers without saying there’s another way to take us to a certain level. If as PSD and the country we have reached a certain level of maturity in politics, we should be doing it”.

Earlier, on Friday evening July 30, 2010, the first ever presidential candidates’s televised debate was held. It was aired on state broadcaster RTV. None of the candidates showed up.

At the time powerful minister James Musoni, now envoy in Zimbabwe, represented RPF. EAC legislator Odette Nyiramirimo came in for PL, while long-serving lawmaker Juvenal Nkusi showed up for PSD.

Unmatched in oratory, Nkusi clearly outdid all the other speakers. Up until today, Nkusi, it can be said, remains one of the most popular politicians in the country. Today, he a Senator.

Throughout the campaign, PSD candidate Ntawukuriryayo, despite not attracting large crowd as RPF, attracted wide coverage in the media largely because his promises were directly challenging the policies of the RPF.

When the election results came in on August 9, 2010, Ntawukuriryayo got 5.15% of the vote and Kagame a whopping 93.08%. No other opposition candidate in the last three elections since the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi has garnered this kind of support as those who have campaigned for the same office have got less than 3 percent.

With the polls over, the political jostling began. RPF, as had been the norm since 1994, had to accommodate all key actors. The 2003 constitution stipulates that no single party can dominate the presidency, cabinet and parliamentary leadership.

Ntawukuriryayo gets the second top position after the President

The following year, 2011, Senate polls took place. President Kagame appointed Ntawukuriryayo among the 8 seats he is constitutionally mandated to fill. Popular opinion had suspected the move. And it came as no surprise that Dr Ntawukuriryayo would later be elected senate president – essentially making him the defactor NUMBER 2 in the country’s official political hierarchy.

For Ntawukuriryayo, as the acts that followed demonstrate, clearly saw himself as a force to be reckoned with.

Barely four years later, Ntawukuriryayo’s political cards came crumbling down. It however came as no surprise, as rumours had been widely doing the rounds suggesting the political establishment led by RPF was increasingly becoming irritated with Ntawukuriryayo’s ways and seeming independence.

He was accused of holding secret meetings with foreign diplomats in which he did not allow other Senate leaders to attend. Ntawukuriryayo was also said to be managing Senate affairs singlehandedly, ignoring other power brokers in the House. Some also accused him of behaving arrogantly towards other members of the Senate management Bureau.

President Kagame shares a light moment with President of the Senate Dr. Jean Damascene Ntawukuriryayo, Prime Minister Pierre Habumuremyi, Chief Justice Prof Rugege and Donatille Mukabalisa Speaker Chamber of Deputies following State of the Nation address, November 16, 2013 (Photo by Village Urugwiro)

In an openly RPF-orchestrated plan, a vote of no confidence took place on September 17, 2014 in Ntawukuriryayo. His alleged intransigencies were perceived to be so big by his enemies that the Senate session that toppled him was held during the House’s recess. The official version given to media is that Ntawukuriryayo had tendered his resignation and the impromptu Senate sitting was convened to confirm or reject it.

Senators and RPF senior cadres Tito Rutaremara and Prof Chrysologue Karangwa were the coup leaders.

During the session, Senator Tito Rutaremara, spoke first. Reading from a prepared note, Rutaremara accused his boss of taking unilateral decisions, sidestepping the Bureau (the Senate’s supreme organ, comprising the president and his two deputies), interfering in administrative matters such as recruitment of staff and not presiding over the sittings and activities of the Bureau and the Committee for Chairpersons as required.

Prof Karangwa also seconded the motion; adding that Ntawukuriryayo had repeatedly breached several provisions in the Upper House’s internal rules and regulations, including interference with a Parliamentary audit exercise.

All this time, Ntawukuriryayo looked on, visibly exhausted from what could have been months of political machinations from his detractors. When his turn came to defend himself, Ntawukuriryayo thanked his colleagues and announced his resignation. The videos from that sitting showed a man walking one of his longest political walks, from the top to oblivion, as he moved from front seats reserved for top leaders to back seats.

It was over for a man who had always made his presence felt. Always willing to give media interviews, Ntawukuriryayo was reduced to only modest comments in the Senate. His combative demeanor disappeared.

ALSO READ: Is It End of The Road For Political Survivor Bernard Makuza?

Tough Health Minister

He had so badly fallen out of favour that in November 2013, at the height of a vigorous campaign of the “Ndi Umunyarwanda” program, at a top government retreat in Kigali, President Kagame is said to have irritably silenced him as he attempted to speak. Reports said later that Kagame’s reaction was borne from information that Ntawukuriryayo was not in favour of the Ndi Umunyarwanda program.

Dr Jean Damascene Ntawukuriryayo, a PhD holder in pharmaceutical technology, now 58, started his political career in the early 1990s as part of a wave of popular opposition to then President Juvenal Habyarimana. PSP party framed itself as a party of moderate intellectuals.

Following the 1994 genocide, Ntawukuriryayo returned to the National University of Rwanda (NUR), the only university in the country at the time, as its deputy rector in charge of finance and administration. A year later, he was appointed to cabinet as state Minister for higher education and scientific research.

Kagame, who was then vice President and defense minister, became president in 2000. Two years later, he elevated Dr Ntawukuriryayo to Minister of Infrastructure. It was after being moved to the Health docket in September 2004 that the country noticed this tough-talking politician.

It was during his tenure that some of the most radical policies were adopted in the health sector. For example, urinating and spitting in public, which at the time was common, were banned. Shoes became mandatory for everyone; even if some couldn’t afford them, ways were found to enforce the policy.

The rampant proliferation of pharmacies was put under strict management. The order enjoyed today in operations of pharmacies comes from that period. There is no way one could operate an unlicenced drug shop. Hygiene in hospitals was uncompromising. The news media enjoyed his regular supervision tours of hotels and restaurants, often storming into kitchens. Not many unhygienic eating joints survived his wrath.

It was no surprise that following the 2008 parliamentary polls, that Dr Ntawukuriryayo, banking on strong PSD showing, was elected vice president of the Chamber of Deputies.

End of the road: At the end of the session on September 17, 2014, this is how Dr Jean Damascene Ntawukuriryayo left the Senate Chamber (Photo by The New Times)

Ntawukuriryayo’s meteoric rise was noted by Rwandans and foreigners alike. In a confidential a diplomatic cable sent by the US embassy in Kigali to Washington on October 23, 2008, summed up his election to parliamentary leadership. The cable was updating Washington on the then concluded parliamentary polls.

Sent by Chargé d’Affaires Cheryl Sim, the cable said: “Ntawukuriryayo will bring a certain personal flair to a legislative body short on charismatic leadership.”

By the time the famous constitutional amendment on term limits heated up in the country in 2015, allowing President Kagame another 7 year term, Ntawukuriryayo was no more. Two year later, when presidential polls were held, the once big bull in the PSD kraal was in the background as the party decided not to field a candidate, and instead campaigned for Kagame, who went on to win another landslide.

Whether wittingly or unwittingly, Dr Ntawukuriryayo contributed to his political downfall by failing to understand that talking tough and attributing success to self or his party would generate unmatched enemies.

Yes, he served in different portfolios for long but never really understood how the system works or how political success is reproduced in the current political dispensation.


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