Rwanda’s next president

Published online January 16, 2011.

There was quite a kerfuffle following President Kagame’s last visit to Uganda in December 2011. The hoo-ha that played out over the airwaves, news pages and Twitter had nothing to do with the trip per se – relations between Presidents Kagame and Museveni have been warming over the past six months and such visits are becoming the norm – but rather with repeated questions about presidential term limits in Rwanda. Amending the constitution to lift term limits is a relatively new trick in the handbook of institutional manipulations. President Museveni, together with the Ugandan parliament, steamrolled right through term limits in 2005, paving the way for a 30-plus-year reign for the former rebel leader. By the time Uganda marks its Jubilee in October of this year, just a few months after Rwanda’s 50-year celebration, Yoweri Museveni and the National Resistance Movement will have held power for over half of the post-independence period.

Whether or not Kagame will attempt to follow in the footsteps of Museveni and lift term limits in advance of the next presidential elections in 2017 is a tired argument. Personally, I doubt that he will do so, but neither do I think it would be at all a difficult task. But that is neither here nor there. Just as there will be a South Africa without Nelson Mandela, there will be a Uganda without Museveni and a Rwanda without Kagame. Though there will undoubtedly continue to be discussion regarding Kagame’s candidacy up until 2017, ultimately the more productive debate is the extent to which promising and talented individuals have opportunities today to become tomorrow’s leaders.

I’m not going speculate who the next president will be, but I’d like to float the idea that Rwanda’s next head of state will be a woman. Rwanda has led the way in bringing women into politics and positions of power, and women around the world are making inroads every day into politics, business, academia, and beyond. As in Uganda’s National Resistance Army and Movement (NRA/M), women have held key positions in the government and party of the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF). The presence of women in politics has been steadily increasing since 1994, and in 2003 Rwanda joined Uganda, Namibia, Mozambique, South Africa, and several other countries in implementing a gender-based quota for legislative seats. In the 2003 election, women won nearly half of all seats in the legislature.

Women have also been well represented in other areas of government and civil society in Rwanda, and have played key roles in rebuilding society in the aftermath of the genocide. Many women have been elected gacaca judges, and women groups have worked to address a wide array of issues, from health to microfinance. As of 2008, Rwanda is home to the only majority female parliament in the world. Women today hold several key ministries, including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Louise Mushikiwabo) and the Ministry of Health (Agnes Binagwaho), as well as senior management positions in institutions such as the Rwanda Development Board (RDB). And regardless of your view of her, Victoire Ingabire has emerged as the figurehead of the official opposition in Rwanda.

While women representatives do not alter policy or the playing field overnight, research suggests that women’s participation in politics has the potential to affect both policy and perceptions about women’s abilities. Studies in India found that local politicians invest in public goods that are most important to their lives, and that types of investment differ by gender and location. For example, women tend to invest more in drinking water than their male counterparts. In Rwanda, women parliamentarians have been credited with pushing for the reform of laws regarding issues such as inheritance, discrimination against women and sexual assault.

In addition to the possibility of affecting policy outcomes, some research shows that the presence of women in politics helps to alter perceptions and prejudices about women’s ability to lead and govern. A group of researchers from the US and India found that where women in India held elected positions in local government, initially with the help of gender quotas for these positions, men tended to hold less negative stereotypes about the efficacy of women in positions of authority.

Additionally, exposure to female leaders tended to increase people’s perceptions of women’s abilities over time. Although community members may rate poorly the first woman elected to a position, her successor would generally be rated more favorably. Exposure to women in politics, at least in some settings, appears to reduce negative stereotypes about women’s abilities to govern, and will likely encourage more women to enter the ring.

In Rwanda, many women have had opportunities to develop the skills and experience to lead. While the debate on term limits rages on, it is important to think beyond personalities—however formative or influential—and focus on the processes through which leadership is reproduced. Rwanda’s political system, its many flaws notwithstanding, has allowed women to participate in government and policymaking to a greater extent than in many other countries. These opportunities for leadership will help shape the next generation and next era of Rwanda’s history. It would not be surprising, therefore, if Rwanda’s next president comes out of this network of powerful and promising women leaders.

Women’s leadership in Rwanda has evolved alongside the innovative approaches the country has tested in its recovery from conflict. Like other challenges Rwanda faces, both general and gender-specific, from poverty to maternal mortality, it is to processes and not individuals that attention should be paid.  Despite urgent challenges, real opportunities exist for ordinary citizens, men and women alike, to grow up in good health with a good education. The impact of public health and education policies on Rwanda’s political development may not be obvious now, but will eventually become evident. The democratic space in Rwanda is still being tested and shaped, discussed and critiqued, pushed and pulled. Ultimately the future lies not with an individual, but with a system that allows the next generation of leaders to emerge.

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