15 May 2018

Rwanda: The Evolution of Rwandan Parliament Through the Eyes of Longest Serving MPs

Photo: Timothy Kisambira/New Times
Lawmakers follow proceedings in Parliament during the debate (file photo).
opinion

Rwandans will return to polls on September 2-3 to pick their representatives in the fourth parliament following the promulgation of the 2003 constitution.

Rwanda's parliament has come of age.

Today, every member has a nice car and they work from a beautiful building complete with state-of-the-art technology. And the offices of parliamentary standing committees ooze opulence.

But was it the same when parliament started out in 1994 as a Transitional National Assembly?

Some of the longest serving MPS explain the long journey parliament has made to be where it is today.

Juvenal Nkusi, 63, has been a member of parliament since November 25, 1994 when the Transitional National Assembly held its first sitting.

He served as the first post-Genocide speaker, from 1994 through 1997. Today, the veteran politician chairs the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) in the Lower House.

To start with, Nkusi says the Parliamentary Building was in ruins thanks to the visible wounds from the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi. The complex was heavily shelled by the then government forces during the Genocide as it was home to a 600-strong battalion of the former RPA rebel movement that had been deployed there to protect RPF politicians that were set to join a transitional government under the Arusha peace accord.

Following the end of the genocide - in July 1994 - the most urgent task as far instituting a parliament was concerned was to clean up the plenary hall to create space for new members of parliament.

There was nothing inside, no seats, no tables, everyone had to improvise to find a place to sit and legislate, Nkusi recalls.

"In our early days in parliament, whenever it rained members were forced to leave their seats and look for a place that was not leaking," said Nkusi, who joined the House as a member of the Social Democratic Party (PSD), which he still represents in Parliament to date.

To conduct sessions, Parliament used two microphones which it borrowed from then Office Rwandais de l'Information (ORINFOR) - Rwanda Broadcasting Agency (RBA).

One of the microphones was placed in the middle of the plenary hall and used by members to air their views, while the other one was for the speaker.

Nkusi said the first post-Genocide parliament was composed of 70 deputies with different backgrounds and political persuasions.

Members were drawn from all political organisations (save for those that had participated in the Genocide against the Tutsi) while there were also six legislators who represented the new armed forces.

So you had a parliament that had people who had returned from exile, others had been political actors inside the country, while others were previously soldiers who had fought the liberation war, Nkusi says.

"The main focus was to chart a common path to rebuild the country and institute inclusive national laws," he said.

"You can imagine a country that had lost over a million of its people, thousands were still nursing life-threatening wounds, we had orphans all the place, widows... .," he adds.

Food instead of a salary

Nkusi says helping the country to pick itself up and restoring law and order in the country was the number one priority for the transitional legislative assembly.

"The first law which we put in place was a piece of legislation governing the operations of the parliament, it sought to create order and rules based procedures in the House, the idea was to get MPs to respect each other and respect everyone else's idea, and that decisions must be taken through a vote," he says.

The first Post-Genocide parliament lasted five years.

During that period, their House's operations were largely guided by four instruments; the constitution of 1991, the Arusha peace accord, the declaration of July 17, 1994 by the triumphant RPF-Inkotanyi, and the accord by political parties represented in parliament.

"The more recent the legal tool was the more powerful it was. So the political parties' accord took precedent over other instruments, then the RPF declaration, then the Arusha protocol, and lastly the 1991 constitution," he explains.

The laws the transitional national assembly passed at the time were designed to address the most pressing issues, to set the country toward the healing and reconstructing process and to improve the wellbeing of the people, adds the former speaker.

"Most of them were designed to address national governance challenges, economic challenges and development issues, as well as establishing justice structures like the high court which was not there at the time and basically setting the court system in motion," he recalls, adding that Rwandans wanted to see justice done especially those who had survived the Genocide.

The House also had to establish other necessary institutions like Rwanda Revenue Authority, the Office of the Auditor General, among others.

Henriette Sebera Mukamurangwa, 58, has been in parliament since 1995. "I remember the minibus which used to pick us from our homes. For all the MPs to be able to make it for the 3p.m plenary session, the first MP would board at 10a.m, while after the plenary, the last person would be dropped off after three hours," she tells The New Times.

Asked about remuneration for Members of Parliament in the immediate aftermath of the Genocide against the Tutsi, Mukamurangwa says the monthly salary was officially set at Rwf60,000 but it came irregularly.

"In many cases were received food items instead of money for a salary," she recalls. "We had nothing like human resource management, or finance department".

Nkusi observes: "Today the country draws money from taxes, but who would pay taxes then? Over one million of people had just been killed while others had fled the country, and the national coffers had been emptied."

From 8 women to a female-dominated House

When Mukamurangwa joined the Transitional National Assembly, she became the eighth woman in the House.

Three more women joined later to increase the number of female MPs to 12. "That's when we started the Forum of Women Parliamentarians (FFRP)."

The idea to have women in decision-making organs was RPF's, she says. "Women had participated in the RPF liberation struggle, including as combatants."

"Not all political parties understood the importance of having a good number of women in parliament or in other decision-making positions," she adds.

The role of FFRP was to advocate for higher women's representation and greater role in decision-making organs.

"We did this in collaboration with organisations like SEVOTA and Pro-Femmes Twesehamwe until the (2003) constitution was promulgated and it provided for a 30 per cent quota for women in all leadership organs, she explains.

"Progressively our male counterparts realised the importance of our presence here; for example, when we first enacted the law punishing genocide crimes, rape had been put in the third category alongside looting and destroying property but we opposed this and our voice was heard.

"Some didn't understand why rape was a major crime but good enough they listened to us and, eventually, the crime was given the weight it deserves and placed in the first category".

FFRP was also instrumental in enactment of laws that promoted equal rights between girls and boys on inheritance matters. "Even in marriage, a woman has the right to inherit from her husband and girls enjoy equal opportunity to attend school, among others. All this has been achieved after a long process of explaining to our male counterparts why it's important," she adds.

"We are glad that today Rwanda is a global leader in gender equality."

24 years later...

Today, women constitute 64 per cent of Rwanda's Lower House, the highest female representation in any parliament globally. "It's interesting to see how things have changed radically, how people changed their mindset about the participation of women in the decision making and national development... I was the 8th women in parliament, now I'm among 64 per cent of them, do you understand the difference?" she said.

Presently, she says, "parliament has comfortable seats now, everyone has their own microphone and members no longer have to queue for a microphone to speak on the floor of the parliament, each member has a computer," Mukamurangwa says.

"Our parliament is an epitome of how far Rwanda has come over the last two decades."

Today Rwanda has a bicameral parliament after the 2003 constitution created the Senate, alongside the Chamber of Deputies - also referred to as the Lowe Chamber.

The Chamber of Deputies, or Lower House, is constituted of 80 members, including 53 that are open to all and these join the House through universal adult suffrage (these seats have continuously been swept by political organisations which present lists of their preferred candidates during parliamentary elections, with the party that garners at least 5 per cent of the total votes guaranteed representation in the Lower House).

Twenty-seven other seats are set aside for special interest groups, with women claiming the lion's share of these (24 seats), while two seats set are reserved for the youth, with one seat reserved for people living with disabilities.

Commenting on the upcoming parliamentary elections, Nkusi says "Rwandans have to vote for candidates they believe in, those who will be able to make good laws and who will really represent them."

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