Democ­racy isn’t a one size fits all

In an ex­clu­sive in­ter­view with Pres­i­dent Paul Kagame is un­equiv­o­cal about the hypocrisy of Western gov­ern­ing stan­dards

CityPress - - Voices & Careers -

The belief that African states are demo­cratic in­fants that should all one day grow into Western-style democ­ra­cies has long both­ered Rwanda’s Pres­i­dent Paul Kagame. Look at how Europe and the US are “wob­bling”. Wit­ness the rise of na­tion­al­ism. Be­hold the pop­u­lar re­volts. What if these “model democ­ra­cies” deigned to learn from Rwanda, where Kagame and his party, the Rwan­dan Pa­tri­otic Front (RPF) – which has gov­erned the coun­try since its armed wing ended the Rwan­dan Geno­cide in 1994 – are sys­tem­at­i­cally shap­ing a so­ci­ety far more uni­fied than its his­tory sug­gested was pos­si­ble?

But Kagame has no de­sire to “teach” the West any­thing. He wants not to be pa­tro­n­ised, es­pe­cially by na­tions which looked the other way in 1994. He wants what lead­ers the world over have claimed for cen­turies: to have the free­dom to do what they be­lieve is best for their coun­try.

A year ago, Rwan­dans voted over­whelm­ingly to al­low Kagame to run again for the pres­i­dency in 2017. This re­quired a con­sti­tu­tional change to ren­der the 59-year-old former mil­i­tary com­man­der el­i­gi­ble to con­test elec­tions and serve un­til 2034. Hu­man rights groups seethed.

“Kagame stay­ing on is a bad thing, no mat­ter how sta­ble the coun­try,” one critic raged. Wash­ing­ton, too, sounded its “deep dis­ap­point­ment”. A long-serv­ing African head of state has to be a despot. Just look at Zim­babwe’s Robert Mu­gabe – or Rwanda’s strife-rid­den neigh­bour, the Demo­cratic Repub­lic of the Congo (DRC), whose leader, Joseph Ka­bila, is med­dling with term lim­its.

Kagame coun­ters this no­tion. Shortly be­fore 60 mil­lion an­gry Amer­i­cans voted Don­ald Trump into the White House, the Rwan­dan head told City Press that the way Western coun­tries de­fine democ­racy “depends on con­ve­nience”.

It is a “big mis­take or con­fu­sion to say that democ­racy equals elec­tions”, Kagame says.

“In pol­i­tics, the win­ner can be the most un­qual­i­fied per­son. There are all kinds of sen­ti­ments that can be called upon for any­body to win. That is what makes [democ­racy] dan­ger­ous – you find peo­ple who call upon these sen­ti­ments, even if they do not be­lieve in them, they do so to win.

“But in the process of do­ing so, you have cre­ated [some­one who may be] a dan­ger to so­ci­ety.”

Just as demo­cratic elec­tions can give you a hero or a despot, ex­tend­ing pres­i­den­tial term lim­its can yield pros­per­ity or a mess.

“You have seen how, in some coun­tries in Africa, where they have tried to say no to term lim­its, they have had chaos. But in oth­ers, such as my own coun­try, you prob­a­bly would have had chaos if you did not oblige to the de­mand for chang­ing term lim­its,” says Kagame.

Rights groups were silent when Ger­many’s Chan­cel­lor An­gela Merkel con­firmed this week she would run for a fourth term in 2017 – a de­ci­sion favoured by many Ger­mans, ac­cord­ing to polls.

Rwanda does cap ex­ec­u­tive terms, but vot­ers opted to change the coun­try’s Con­sti­tu­tion, al­low­ing Kagame to run again. Clearly, they have made a case for more of the same – for now.

“There is some­thing good about those term lim­its, but it is not just the be­gin­ning and end of the def­i­ni­tion of democ­racy,” Kagame says.

“It can ap­ply here, and it may not ap­ply there. In the US they did not start with term lim­its – or even if they did, it broke down and they did not have it. And then they went back to it.

“Things have changed be­cause of cir­cum­stances, his­tory, con­text. Why should they have this sort of blue­print for ev­ery coun­try in Africa? As if all of us are the same and have the same con­text.”

Ge­o­graph­i­cally, Rwanda’s con­text in­cludes not only the DRC but also Bu­rundi, where Hutu chau­vin­ism is rais­ing the spec­tre of re­newed civil war.

His­tor­i­cally, Rwanda’s con­text is lit­tered with mas­sacres in times of fierce demo­cratic con­tes­ta­tion. One size does not fit all, the Rwan­dans now be­lieve.

“Give us time to build strength in our sys­tems,” says Kagame. “Maybe some­body says 16 years is not enough; we need an­other 10.”

Kagame points out he did not ask for his ex­tended term – Rwan­dans did. “It is what we want. It is what the sit­u­a­tion and the con­text de­mand. It is our choice.”

When pres­sure to con­form to Western stan­dards comes from the very na­tions which ig­nored the geno­cide or even abet­ted the géno­cidaires, Kagame sees dou­ble stan­dards.

Some coun­tries, such as France – un­der the lead­er­ship of François Mit­ter­rand – ac­tively col­luded with Rwanda’s then pres­i­dent Ju­vé­nal Hab­ya­ri­mana’s geno­ci­dal regime.

Oth­ers sold arms. South African arms deal­ers sold $60 mil­lion (R847 mil­lion) worth of R4 ri­fles, hand grenades and am­mu­ni­tion to Hab­ya­ri­mana’s killers in the seven months be­fore May 1991, when mas­sacres against the Tutsi mi­nor­ity had al­ready be­gun.

Some of the money for these weapons, used in the 100 days of slaugh­ter – April 7 to mid-July – which marked the 1994 geno­cide, was paid into a Pre­to­ria branch of Volk­skas Bank (which, in 1991, merged with other build­ing so­ci­eties to form Absa, now part of Bar­clays Africa Group).

So, Rwanda prefers to be ac­count­able to it­self, know­ing that when the chips are down, it stands alone.

Anas­tase Shyaka, chief ex­ec­u­tive of the Rwanda Gov­er­nance Board, re­calls that, be­fore the slaugh­ter of Tut­sis and mod­er­ate Hu­tus be­gan in April 1994, Rwanda “had 10 to 15 po­lit­i­cal par­ties, and there was the dy­namism of so-called demo­cratic com­pe­ti­tion”.

“Geno­cide is re­lated to the kind of democ­racy prac­tised here be­fore. We needed to find our own path. When the RPF came to power, we had to ask: ‘Can we reignite Rwan­dan­ness?’”

The goal of Kagame’s RPF, which dom­i­nates pol­i­tics in Rwanda – and even pro­duces its own bot­tled wa­ter, as if to en­sure ev­ery­one drinks the na­tion-build­ing Kool-Aid – has been to strive for “pol­i­tics that is less con­fronta­tional”, Shyaka says. Yes to unity, no to di­vi­sion. Sta­bil­ity, not up­sets. To these goals Kagame would add ac­count­abil­ity – not to the West or South Africa, but “to each other and our­selves”.

And pros­per­ity. The econ­omy has grown at about 8% a year for 14 years. But growth has of­ten been un­even. So, in 2006, the state ini­ti­ated the Girinka scheme, whereby poor fam­i­lies each re­ceived a cow free of charge. It be­gan in the poor­est ru­ral ar­eas and de­liv­ered 250 000 cows to poor house­holds.

“You give a cow to a fam­ily. It grows, re­pro­duces and pro­vides milk – say, 15 litres. Of this, five litres or half the 15 litres are con­sumed in the home. The rest goes to the mar­ket,” says Kagame.

“Fam­i­lies get money from that, and they have con­sumed milk for protein. The first calf gets passed to a neigh­bour, which means some level of bond­ing is cre­ated in so­ci­ety.

“So, the scheme started work­ing for rec­on­cil­i­a­tion as well.”

Na­tion-build­ing af­ter 1994 also re­quired do­ing away with colo­nial-era iden­tity cards, in­di­cat­ing whether you were Hutu, Tutsi or Twa. The card served as a death war­rant for 1 mil­lion Tut­sis on whose graves the na­tion stands.

In 2001, a con­tro­ver­sial law against “di­vi­sion­ism” was passed, mak­ing it il­le­gal for Rwanda’s cit­i­zens to or­gan­ise po­lit­i­cally around eth­nic­ity or re­gion – be­cause, when the ma­chetes were taken up, those in the north also turned against their south­ern coun­ter­parts.

Par­ties were purged of “ex­trem­ist el­e­ments”. Some, an Is­lamic party among them, were re­named.

Even co­op­er­a­tives of taxi driv­ers must be open to ev­ery­body – “oth­er­wise it leads to the foun­da­tion of cliques and mis­trust”, a top pres­i­den­tial aide told City Press. Unity at all costs.

This in re­ac­tion to the ide­ol­ogy of so-called Hutu Power supremacy, which ad­vo­cated a call to arms against Tut­sis and was in­stru­men­tal in the 1994 geno­cide; and in re­ac­tion to the hith­erto free me­dia, which prop­a­gated ra­bid na­tion­al­ism and ap­pealed for a “fi­nal so­lu­tion” to the “Tutsi cock­roach curse”.

“Free me­dia is sup­pos­edly al­ways good, and all reg­u­la­tions are re­garded with deep sus­pi­cion,” says Kagame’s aide.

“Free me­dia is im­por­tant, but you can­not use it to di­vide peo­ple.”

John­ston Bus­ingye, Rwanda’s min­is­ter of jus­tice, re­calls the out­cry from rights groups. “They said the laws in­fringed on free­dom of ex­pres­sion and free­dom of thought, but we in­sisted [on pro­mul­gat­ing them]. We ar­gued that geno­cide did not hap­pen out of the blue, but as a re­sult of strat­egy and in­tel­lec­tual in­put.”

Now the strat­egy is dif­fer­ent. Even while pro­cess­ing 1.9 mil­lion cases re­lated to the geno­cide in a mas­sive home-grown jus­tice project that sent only the most mon­strous géno­cidaires to jail, Kagame started preach­ing Rwan­dan­ness, ap­pointed sons and daugh­ters of géno­cidaires in gov­ern­ment jobs or paid for them to study abroad.

The 20 000 univer­sity grad­u­ates Rwanda pro­duces each year amount to 10 times more than the to­tal num­ber of grad­u­ates in the coun­try in 1994. “We are bet­ter off now than we were be­fore 1994,” Kagame says. One grad­u­ate told City Press that mov­ing on has be­come an ob­ses­sion for the 70% of Rwan­dans born af­ter 1994 and those who were too young then to grasp the hor­ror.

Nor­bert Mukunzi, a 32-year-old net­work engi­neer from Ki­gali, says: “Eth­nic­ity has be­come ir­rel­e­vant. When I hang out with my friends, no­body is in­ter­ested in talk­ing about eth­nic­ity. It is con­sid­ered rude and im­po­lite.”

He is wor­ried about the dearth of jobs, but be­lieves that Rwanda is “go­ing in the right di­rec­tion, so­cially”.

“What­ever it takes, I want sta­bil­ity. When we had so-called democ­racy, there was killing be­cause you could say what you wanted.” He be­lieves Kagame should stay for now. “He is pow­er­ful. Our in­sti­tu­tions are not that pow­er­ful yet. So, there is or­der. Our sta­bil­ity is largely thanks to him. If he leaves, I do not think it will be good. Peo­ple are afraid that if we let him go, maybe there will be an­other catas­tro­phe.”

Kagame is happy to fill the breach. “I have a feel­ing that the fu­ture is brighter and we are leav­ing these di­vi­sions be­hind us.

“There will al­ways be prob­lems in so­ci­ety. Peo­ple are not made in fac­to­ries. You don’t just give them uni­for­mity.

“But gen­er­ally, you can see the coun­try is com­ing to­gether, and there are so­cial and other ties in so­ci­ety that make it co­he­sive. So, we are ahead of many other coun­tries, which did not even have this kind of [war­ring] sit­u­a­tion.”

“As some­body once said, we are ide­al­ists – and stub­born ones, too.” Pelser is edi­tor of City Press’ sis­ter pa­per, Rap­port

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STUB­BORN IDE­AL­IST Rwanda’s Pres­i­dent Paul Kagame

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