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
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