ILLUSION 3: Rwanda is a role model in empowering women

As our gullible visitor moves steadily from the airport and reaches the Nyarutarama junction, she is shown by the taxi driver a magnificent set of buildings sitting on top of an imposing hill. The taxi man explains to the visitor that what she is now looking at is the parliamentary complex – the sitting of Rwandan parliamentarians and senators. Excitedly, the lady visitor asks the driver: “is it true women are so empowered and even determine the legislative direction of your country?” To which the taxi driver proudly responds: “Madam – I may not know some of these things, but thanks to our visionary leadership, women are not only empowered, they also form the majority of our representatives in parliament. I hear this over and over again on the radio.”


Because the majority of Rwandan parliamentarians are female – at 56% – an even higher percentage than in Sweden which is globally recognized for its leadership in this cause, Rwanda is a role model in empowering women.

A real parliament normally has at least four functions – (1) representing the constituency, civil society and citizens at large, including the downtrodden; (2) consolidating the national interest via bipartisanship by giving voice to all its members, regardless whether they are drawn from the ruling party or the opposition; (3) improving governance by legislating and drafting laws; and (4) holding the executive branch accountable in management of public affairs including budgetary resources and public assets.


So now, does it follow that because the Rwandan parliament has female majority, it is somehow an inclusive and innovative legislative body that meets these basic responsibilities, including competencies to improve the lives of women? Whoever answers this in affirmative, he/she should seek immediate mental care.

  • Who do Rwandan parliamentarians represent – their own local constituencies, women, civil society, or Rwandan citizens at large?
  • What type of bipartisanship, pluralistic and tolerant culture is the Rwandan parliament building – if any?
  • Which parliamentary committee is genuinely led by the opposition – including those aspects assigned to the opposition in accordance with Commonwealth practices which Rwanda supposedly adheres to due to its membership of this grouping?
  • What progressive laws, comparatively, has Rwandan parliament passed in favor of women – laws that, for example, have far-reaching impact than in neighboring countries whose parliaments have fewer female legislators?
  • Who controls whom in Rwanda – does parliament oversee the operations of the executive branch or is it the reverse?

The answer to each of these questions, for all intents and purposes, confirms the near-total dominance of the executive over other branches of government in Rwanda, especially the subservient Rwandan parliament.


Rwandan parliament, its women majority notwithstanding, is a toothless rubber stamp of the one-man iron-fist rule. This is the very same parliament that shockingly gave President Paul Kagame an ovation in 2010 when he violently stated that he would kill a fly with a hammer referring to exiled former Rwandan army chief of staff and former intelligence chief. Where else but in Kagame’s Rwanda would a head of state openly talk of killing people right inside the very assembly that makes laws against such behavior – and instead receive a prolonged applause and enthusiastic response! Among those cheering-on the Rwandan ruler was the 56% female majority and the female speaker of the lower chamber of the Rwandan parliament, Rose Mukantabana, who was little known when she mysteriously acquired the post in 2008, remains undistinguished in 2013.

The current President of the Rwandan Senate, Jean Damascene Ntawukuriryayo, best illustrates the wretchedness of Rwandan politics. This man has held various ministerial portfolios in the Kagame-led government, including higher education, infrastructure, and health before transiting to parliament as one of its vice presidents. Ntawukuriryayo was one of the few politicians allowed to run against the incumbent Paul Kagame on an essentially same political platform in both the presidential elections of 2003 and 2010. This is why Ntawukiriryayo earned the nickname “the stooge.” The incumbent won the elections by a shocking 93% in 2010 while the stooge came second with 5%. Ntawukuriryayo hastened to congratulate Paul Kagame. President Kagame returned the stooge’s favor by nominating him to the Rwandan Senate where he was soon crowned its president. Guess what!? Under the strange Rwandan Constitution, this unelected stooge would be the ruler of Rwanda, were the incumbent to become incapacitated. Hallelujah, Amen! Meanwhile the former President of the Senate, Vincent Biruta, has been recycled back into the Kagame cabinet, as Minister of Education.

For inspiration in female parliamentary leadership, look across the border – the Republic of Uganda – where women form a mere 31% in parliament. Led by Rebecca Alitwala Kadaga, Ugandan parliament continues to challenge and change the political status quo since Kadaga made history by becoming the first female speaker in May 2011.

Kadaga’s long public service as a member of parliament, minister, deputy speaker and now speaker gives her considerable exposure and experience at both the national and international spheres. Kadaga’s strength radiates primarily from the very constituency whose lives she is determined to improve – Ugandan women.

Kadaga does not blindly obey the orders of President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni – on the contrary she stands up to the Ugandan ruler in defence of parliamentary responsibilities, even though she is a member of the president’s ruling party, the NRM. Speaker Kadaga’s insistency to preserving neutrality in moderating debates between her own party and the opposition is becoming legendary – and a continuous irritation to the ruling elite. And as is widely reported, Kadage has a formidable informal committee of advisers, including sector experts, lawyers, media professionals, MPs, influential religious leaders, and cultural leaders, whom she regularly consults – which provides the Speaker with a knowledge-base that enables her to withstand executive power plays.

No equivalency of a Rebecca Alitwala Kadaga exists in the so-called female-majority Rwandan parliament. What you have in Rwanda instead is yet another PR-inspired fake branding shamelessly masqueraded as “women empowerment.” A Kagada would simply not happen in Rwanda whereby the Constitution makes the head of state quite literally a monarch who determines almost every career and livelihood in public service on the basis of obsequiousness, as laughably illustrated by the case of the President of the Rwandan Senate.

Dr David Himbara was the Principal Private Secretary to President Paul Kagame in 2000-2002 and 2009. He was the founding chairperson of the Strategy and Policy Unit (SPU), the founding chairperson of Rwanda Development Board (RDB) and the founding chairperson of the Institute for Policy Analysis and Research (IPAR).  A Rwandan-Canadian, David Himbara is an independent reform strategist and an Adjunct Professor at the University of the Witswaterand, South Africa which he has been associated with on-and-off since 1994. Himbara left Rwanda and returned to South Africa in January 2010.