Donatille Mukabalisa, 59, is speaker of Rwandan parliament and leader of the opposition Liberal Party. In this interview with Temitope Ajayi in Kigali, she said her country is leading the world in area of gender equality and women participation in governance. She also spoke on the rise of Rwanda out of the ashes of Genocide in 1994 and the bilateral relationship between Nigeria and her country.
You are a lawyer and a former official of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP); why did you join politics in 2000?
The motivation came from our history and of course a career in the United Nations. There is no way one will work within the UN system and one will not be interested in politics and governance. I grew up in this country and the history of my country pushed me to join politics after 1994. Before 1994, the politics of this country was characterised by division and all kinds of evil that led to the genocide against the Tutsi in 1994. I was around when the genocide happened. I had a chance to escape. I am a survivor of the genocide against the Tutsi even though I was pursued by those who wanted to kill me. I survived by miracle. I was in the country up till June 1994 before I was able to escape as a member of staff of UNDP. So, after 1994, there was the liberation ideology that promoted inclusiveness. I decided to join politics to contribute my quota to the rebuilding efforts of my country. I became active in the process and decided to contribute to the journey to rebuild and develop the country. That was how I joined politics.
How will you describe the journey of nation-building in Rwanda in terms of economy and social cohesion in line with the Vision 2020 the country launched in year 2000?
We have made significant progress in all areas. The country was totally destroyed. We had to start from the scratch. The immediate priority was to re-unite the country because the country was divided and fractured for a long time. Everything was a priority in fact, because we did not know how to start and where to start from. Everything now boiled down to good leadership and the citizens. We have the blessing of a good and visionary leader in the person of His Excellency, Paul Kagame, whose leadership is about inclusiveness and making sure that every citizen benefits from everything we are doing.
Everything we are doing is all about the citizens’ well-being. People can not work unless they are together. We had to work on reconciling people even though it was delicate. We could not imagine the possibility of reconciling people who had perpetrated evil against the Tutsis, those who have killed and maimed, some exiled for decades all coming together to reconcile and now work together to rebuild the country. But it happened because the people trusted the leadership of President Kagame. We began the journey of healing people that were traumatised by the genocide. There were people that had no shelter at all after the genocide; people who had nothing. But we succeeded in the job of uniting people and the country. You can see the result of what we have achieved today. We are at a very amazing level if you see the result of unity and reconciliation barometer, considering where we were coming from.
How has the country fared in the areas of education, health and other social services?
We can say we are in a good place in terms of education. We have put in place good policies on education, particularly education for young girls. We have a policy on education for all that has impacted so much on school enrolment at very high level. On health, we have a mechanism that provides health for all citizens. We have healthcare coverage insurance for all citizens and we are at a satisfying level with the outcomes. On economy, we have an economy that is growing and unique in Africa and all over the world. Our economy is growing very fast but it is not taken for granted. It is about the commitment of the people who trust their leaders and working together in other to get the country to move forward.
So, what is the strength of the private sector and its contribution to the economic growth of Rwanda?
The private sector is playing a very big role. It is playing a pivotal role because they are developing very fast. When you see the contribution of the private sector to the GDP, it is very high and I mean 85% of the total GDP of the country.
You are the second female speaker of the parliament, I mean the lower chamber, which is called house of deputies. You were a senator at the upper chamber before your current role. In a continent where men dominate the political space, do you feel any sense of accomplishment?
I can say that is a pride for our country first of all and I will add that it is a job that comes with a lot of responsibility for me to lead an institution that is making law for the country and overseeing government actions and programmes. It is a big responsibility and a shared responsibility because I work closely with all members of parliament. We work together, put our efforts together and see the best way to move things. We are the best in the world as a country with the biggest number of women in the parliament and even in other institutions of government at the executive and judiciary down to the lower levels of governance. We have 50 percent women in the executive and almost 50 percent in the judiciary. This happened in our country because we have the political will at the highest level.
Rwanda has one of the best records in the world in terms of high representation of women in governance. You are rated number 5…
(Cuts in) No. No. We are number 1 in the world in terms of women representation in governance. We are number five in terms of closing the gender gap and women participation. Don’t mix it up.
Thanks for the correction. Now, what can other African countries learn from Rwanda in terms of women representation?
What I can say is that no country can aspire to develop in a very efficient way when it is leaving a big part of the population behind. Women and men must work together to build a progressive society. We must have women participate at every level of governance in any country, including in the private sector and the political parties. Women play important roles in building a society. A society cannot hope to progress when 52% of the population is not carried along. Women in Africa represent 52% of our population. A major part of our population must be at the centre of governance process and every citizen – men and women must be involved.
President Kagame was the immediate past chairman of the African Union. He is also playing a leading role in promoting the Continental Free Trade Agreement. You were once the chairman of the committee on economy and trade; what’s your view on the free trade agreement that African leaders have signed unto?
It is a big opportunity for all African countries. We need to embrace this opportunity continent-wide by putting mechanism in place that will make the free trade agreement benefit the citizens of African countries.
Don’t you think Free Trade makes it easier for developed Western nations under World Trade Organisation protocols to turn Africa to dumping ground for their goods, using African countries with weak manufacturing base as channels and not keeping to the rules of origin of goods and services from AU member states?
No. When we are working together, of course, it will be a win-win situation. Our continent is a very rich one. We have to take this opportunities especially for young people to see how we can exploit our resources for the benefits of our people. No country can work alone. We have to work together as a continent. We are stronger together. When we are stronger together we can develop our trade together. If we are not together we cannot work, trade and do things together. Togetherness is very important for us in Africa. On developed Western economies using Africa as a dumping grounds for their goods, I will say we are not weak. African countries are not weak. The weaknesses we are seeing is about the choices we are making. If we make a choice to put our efforts together, we will start thinking big and see how we can exploit those resources of Africa, especially putting education towards the needs of Africa and empowering young people and women in order to be able to exploit our resources, to transform them with value addition and not just export them as raw materials. We have to export finished products to other parts of the world as a way to develop our economy in Africa and make our resources benefit our people. We have to plan and develop our human resources in Africa and make our continent and people competitive. I don’t think we have anything to fear with free trade agreement in Africa. It will benefit us.
You’ve spoken glowingly of President Kagame whom you described as a ‘visionary leader’. If he is all you have said of him, why are you not in his party?
That is not a problem. It is in our constitution that the heads of the two chambers of parliament cannot be in same political party with the ruling party which is the party of the president even when the ruling party has majority seats in both chambers. The RPF, the president’s party, is holding their congress and they have invited all political parties. We have chosen inclusiveness as a country. All political parties must work together with the same objective of moving Rwanda forward. We have same vision. Once we have same vision and objectives, we are all committed to Rwanda.
Part of the fundamental principles of our constitution is cooperation, dialogue and consensus. As political parties, we all bring our ideas together, we seek the best way to achieve what is good for our country. All we aspire to achieve as a people, as citizens and as a nation is to have a great country for us all. For a long time, some political parties played a role in the destruction of this country, so we have decided as political parties to put our efforts together to develop our country. There is also a fact of our constitution that the president of the Republic and speaker of parliament cannot be in the same political party. It is what we have chosen for checks and balance. It is the governance system we have chosen as a country and it is working for us very well.
How many seats does your party have in the parliament where you are the speaker?
Yes, I am the leader of my party. My party has seven seats out of the 80 seats in Chamber of Deputies.
I attended the National Dialogue, Umushykirano where the president said he hopes a woman will become the next president of Rwanda, possibly after him. Do you see yourself becoming the president of this country someday?
(Long Laugh) Ah!
Okay. I understand. That is not a question you want to answer. Before l let you go then, you belong to Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, Pan-African Parliamentary Union and other regional parliamentary associations. At these global and continental parliamentary groups, what legislative agenda are the parliaments pursuing to ensure issues like education, healthcare and other matters under the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals are accelerated by governments of respective countries?
As a parliament and a country we are member of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, we also belong to the parliamentary association of French speaking countries, we belong to the parliamentary union in East Africa and that of the African Union. Let me say in terms of gender equality and women empowerment we have set up goal that are in stages. We have also set up goals on African Union Agenda 2063 at continental level. As parliamentarians, we are working to support the executive and our respective governments to achieve set global and continental development initiatives through legislation that will strengthen their implementation.
Once development programmes are put in place at continental level and as parliamentarians we play our roles as lawmakers to ensure implementation and oversights. We see to good implementation of the programmes adopted by national governments. So, at the various forum where we meet and interact we do peer review to see the progress we are all making. We share knowledge and expertise when we meet at IPU, CPA and Pan-African Parliament. We consider how issues that affect the population are being addressed in our countries in line with the programmes set by continental and global bodies. On education for example, we compare notes on progress being made by national governments on issue like access to education by girls, how national budgets are impacting in meeting specific needs of the citizens of our countries. We share expertise and knowledge on how to develop our countries and change the world for better.
My last question to you, have you been to Nigeria before? Interestingly, RwandAir flies into Lagos and Abuja. How do you think relations between Rwanda and Nigeria can be strengthened at bilateral and people to people level?
I have been to Nigeria before. I was in Imo State specifically for the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association African regional summit. On relations between our two countries, what I can say is that we have good relationship between our two parliaments and our governments have very good relationship too. At parliamentary level, we have met at different fora as I have told you. On bilateral and trade matters, Nigeria and Rwanda are doing well. Our president comes to Nigeria very often. RwandAir comes to Lagos and Abuja and we are very happy with this because it will help us develop our trade and investments between the two countries. We have investors from Nigeria in our country. We want to see more investors coming from Nigeria to invest in Rwanda, in areas of our economy more than they are currently doing. Rwanda is a much smaller country compared to Nigeria but we offer a good place for investors with our economic policies and ease of doing business which is about the best in Africa. Rwanda is a good place for businesses that have ambition for East Africa market. Nigerian banks are doing well in Rwanda. We want to see more investment from Nigeria into our country. We know Nigerians love Rwanda. We also thank Nigerians for loving our president. When you love the president of the republic it means you love the people of Rwanda. We want the relationship between our countries to grow stronger and stronger.