Last week, October 17, the Third Senate since the promulgation of the post-genocide constitution in 2003 was sworn-in and officially opened.
In all, 20 senators took the oath of office. These joined six others whose term expires next year.
The senate is composed of 26 senators; 18 elected through various electoral colleges and 8 appointed by the Head of State.
As is his constitutional responsibility, the function was presided over by President Paul Kagame.
Besides presiding over the swearing-in of new senators, the president also oversaw the election of the new Senate leadership composed of the President and two vice presidents.
Veteran politician and Social Democratic Party (PSD) old-guard, Dr. Agustin Iyamuremye was elected President while Hon Espérance Nyirasafari was elected Vice President in charge of government oversight and legislation and Dr Alvera Mukabaramba elected Vice President in charge of administration and finance.
Nyirasafari is a member of the ruling RPF and former minister of sports and culture while Dr Mukabaramba is the President of the Party for Progress and Concord (PPC).
As in previous election of Senate leaders, there was no drama; no campaigns or open politicking for any position. The process was that a senator just raises their hand and proposes a colleague for this or that office; the anointed individual, also from their seat, accepts the challenge and then, the vote is cast. Just like that, one becomes Senate President or Vice President; everything smooth and clean.
Dear reader, what’s important to report here is threefold: first, the new senate leadership─the president and his two deputies are individuals who were nominated to the senate by the President of the Republic. Secondly, they now lead the institution that is supposed to offer oversight over the executive and ensure respect for fundamental principles in the constitution; including “power-sharing”; democracy and respect for human rights.
Some criticize this as undemocratic and wonder how the senate can hold government accountable when headed by individuals elected from presidential nominees while others dismiss this as groundless and claim its politics of “consensus”.
Thirdly, constitutionally, the Senate President is the second most important position in the land and comes with lots of perks and a degree of power.
So, the key questions are: why is the second most important position in the country not “earned” through hard work or campaigned for? What does this “easy” access tell us about how positions of power are attained in the prevailing political system?
In conventional politics, individuals gain such positions of power after vigorous campaigns, politicking, speechifying and deal-making.
In majoritarian political systems, the position of Senate President or House Speaker is taken up by an individual from the party with a majority and in consensual democracies, it’s a result of bargaining. How is it done in Rwanda?
Before explaining why these positions aren’t openly competed for, it’s important to remind that since the inauguration of the Senate in 2003, every Senate President has come from individuals nominated to the Senate by the Head of State. This was the case in the first Senate in 2003 when Dr Vincent Biruta was elected (2003-2011) and Dr. Jean Damascene Ntawukuriryayo (2011-2014) as well as Bernard Makuza (2014-2019).
It can’t be by coincidence that all Senate Presidents have thus far been selected from presidential nominees nor that they all came from PSD─a party perceived to be the second biggest in the country.
Instead, what this tell us is that who becomes Senate President or Vice President is decided beforehand, and secondly, that all Senate Presidents have come from presidential nominees demonstrates how much power the President of the Republic wields to the extent that he can decide who the number two in the country should be.
In the larger scheme of things however, it’s clear that the Senate leadership is also decided on the basis of the power-sharing pact contained in the constitution and the Head of State has played a central role in enforcing this pact.
That’s, the unwritten pact seems to be that since the RPF has the presidency, PSD should have the Senate while another “smaller” party leads the lower chamber. That has been the case since 2003. Remember, the current lower chamber Speaker comes from the Liberal Party (PL). These are the three main parties.
But that these positions aren’t openly competed for demonstrates the de-politicization of access to positions of power in the current political dispensation. This teaches us that, to get any political job doesn’t depend on what one can do or can promise to do as in other political systems; but what the powers-that-be think you can do.
This also means that the politics of self-promotion through campaigns is frowned upon; not valued. That doesn’t mean individuals don’t promote their suitability or that parties don’t lobby for their members. Instead, as those who keep their ears on the ground will tell you, lobbying is done behind-the-scenes and aimed at impressing RPF power-brokers.
And that’s significant. It means that to gain and retain this or that position, except for the presidency, one needs to impress the powers-that-be and their parties; for politicians have no real constituency who determine their ascendancy outside of these two.
That said, the choice of the new Senate leadership, particularly Dr. Iyamuremye as President teaches us three further truths about what guardians of our political system value most.
The first is that loyalty pays. Secondly, predictability is valued. Finally, in our political system, it seems, nothing can surprise as ours is a “managed” democratization experiment where order and development are prized over jostling for positions of power. Let’s illustrate.
To understand the importance of loyalty and demonstrated support for the prevailing political system in accessing positions of power, you need to know the history of Dr. Iyamuremye and others who have occupied the office he now holds; that’s Dr. Vincent Biruta; Dr Ntawukuriryayo and Bernard Makuza.
Dr Iyamuremye, like his predecessors, is one of the few “original” opposition politicians who bought into the political order brought by RPF at the end of the genocide in 1994 and, for his early “generosity”, served in different ministerial positions and, at 73, is still reaping fruits of his wise investment.
In fact, the unassuming and soft-spoken Iyamuremye is possibly the only politician in high echelons of power today who also served in high positions in the administration of four out of six presidents the country has had since independence in 1962.
He served in President Juvenal Habyarimana’s government, Theodore Sindikubwabo; Pasteur Bizimungu and Paul Kagame.
Between 1977-1984, Iyamuremye was a lecturer at the former University of Rwanda and Director of the University’s laboratory where he got to teach many influential politicians including former Burundi President Cyprien Ntaryamira who was killed in a plane crash with Habyarimana. He also served as the Prefect of former Gitarama prefecture (1990-1992); acted as head of intelligence between 1992 and 1994 and was minister of agriculture (1994-1998); minister for information (1998-1999) and foreign affairs minister (1999-2000) during Pausteur Bizimungu’s reign; etc.
Considering that Dr Iyamuremye is also the son-in-law of Theodore Sindikubwabo, the man who became president after Habyarimana’s death and a key overseer of genocide against Tutsis, his political survival and ability to serve without controversy is impressive.
So, like Dr. Biruta, Makuza and to a certain extent Dr Jean-Damascène Ntawukuriryayo – individuals who led the Senate before him, Iyamuremye’s ascendancy to the senate presidency demonstrates that loyalty to the political order pays and predictability in what he can or can’t say and do is valued, and has been rewarded.
The same can be said of Dr. Mukabaramba, who stood as a presidential candidate in 2003 but withdrew in favour of President Kagame a few days to the election. Since then, she hasn’t been out of a political job.
On balance therefore, we could say that ours is a “managed” democratic experiment where access to positions of power is determined NOT by ambition, aspirations, high ideals and promises individual politicians can make to the electorate, but by guardians of the political system and agreed or decided behind-the-scenes.