4 September 2017

Rwanda: President Kagame's Re-Election - a Perspective From the Global North

Photo: The East African
William Gelling, the British ambassador to Rwanda.
opinion

As a British national, and as a result also a resident of the global north, it may not surprise readers to know that much of what is written in the British and American press tends to report on Rwanda, as it does relating to most of Africa, in a very confused and dare I say an ignorant fashion.

It pains me to say that a lot of the recent articles in the past few weeks relating to the re-election of President Kagame have been no different.

As seems to be the contemporary norm, the format of these articles is a straightforward formula comprising faint praise followed by veiled criticism, or in some cases explicit criticism.

Yet many of the articles that I have read have come from people who profess to be 'experts' in either Rwanda or the wider African Continent having never set foot in the State or Region.

I have seen shorter statements on social media conveying a similar message from professionals and academics, who in the time I have known them have likewise never physically visited the country or spoken to its people.

I have pondered the many reasons why such articles and comments are made, and in addition to the already known post-colonial attitudes that are often perpetuated from the Global North, a further conclusion that I have reached is that there is a missing link when it comes to formal education in areas such as journalism, social sciences, law, and politics.

Schools and Universities are so busy teaching students to be 'critical thinkers' that they are arguably failing in their duty to equally instil the ethical requirement to carefully consider the full context of the subject matter and ensure you have the appropriate background knowledge before making such a negative critique.

In the past two years during the build-up to the recent Presidential elections, I have visited Rwanda four times. I have attended presidential rallies, taken part in UMUGANDA, visited communities, and spoken at conferences.

I have many friends, acquaintances, and colleagues both young and old that live and work in the country. As such I feel confident that I have the knowledge and experience to understand that crucial context to make a more accurate analysis of the political situation than so many of those other commentators from the Global North mentioned previously.

Of course, the main criticism being levied relating to the elections is that President Kagame should not have run for another term in office, and this criticism is often justified with reference to other past African or Middle Eastern leaders such as Gaddafi or Mugabe who are currently or historically viewed in a negative light by the Global North.

Sadly, what is never fully demonstrated by those writing such criticism is that the context of Rwanda is radically different to that of any other State in the world, let alone just in the African Continent.

Whilst unprecedented strong economic growth within Rwanda is an area reported on in the press, there appears to be a reluctance to attribute this to long-term, consistent, stable leadership, or a consideration of what might happen should a major change in leadership occur prematurely without foresight of consequence.

One of my favourite quotes currently, that I have used several times in discussions on the matter of politics and governance in Rwanda comes from Abulof and Goldman, when in a 2015 report on democratic peace in the Middle East they noted that "when state-building comes at the expense of nation-building it may breed rather than hinder violence".

How this statement can be applied to the Global North and opinions of Rwanda might relate to the almost obsessive pursuit of liberalised representative democracy on a global scale, as though this approach will fix all of the problems a region might have.

Many international interventions have had this notion of liberal democratisation at the heart of the strategic plans for the region in question. Yet arguably all such interventions and impositions in recent memory have been unmitigated disasters, all resulting in hugely destabilising effects where countries have collapsed rather than advanced.

Considering the statement above from Abulof and Goldman, it is not in fact particularly difficult to ascertain what might be a primary reason for failure on such a scale.

State-building; that is putting in place specific institutions that mirror a liberal representative democracy and processes to facilitate their initial operation, are completely meaningless unless there is genuine buy-in and belief from a large majority of the population that live in the region in question.

If the people do not believe in the system, or worse still if they feel that the changes to the State in fact have the opposite of the intended effect and disenfranchised or negatively affected them, then what political, social or societal consequences can there be other than negative ones to that region?

Political change at too rapid or accelerated a pace, when neglecting the need to achieve buy-in or 'nation-building' is unlikely to ever be a success, and altering such political perspectives on a wide scale to achieve a positive outcome, even if a liberal representative democracy were the end goal, can only be done over a long period of transition where the people of the region are consulted, opinions invited, and criticisms listened to.

Then and only then, once the nation-building has been achieved, should the process of State-building (or rather radical changes to the political makeup of the State to be more accurate) be attempted.

It is quite amazing that a comedy show in the United Kingdom seemed to grasp this concept more than twenty-five years ago much better than many contemporary journalists.

In a horrible twist of fate this was broadcast just three years before the Genocide against the Tutsi, and when Rwanda was still in the process of Civil War, in 1991.

In the BBC's 'Red Dwarf', when in an episode titled 'Meltdown', one of the characters leads an army in an invasion with the ill-considered vision of imposing his own interpretation of democracy.

At the end of the battle when he returns to base, one of his colleagues, who had opposed the invasion, asked the question about the invading force "how many of them made it back?" to be given the answer "There are always casualties in war, gentlemen. Otherwise it wouldn't be war, just be a rather nasty argument with a lot of pushing and shoving... we haven't had time to make a full official estimate, but at a rough guess, and obviously this is subject to alteration pending information updates, roundabout none of them."

The colleague asks with incredulity "So you wiped out the entire population?" to be challenged with "You make it sound so negative. Don't you see, the deranged menace that once threatened this world is vanquished!" leading to the quick and succinct retort, "No it isn't, pal. You're still here."

The invading character then asserts that "I brought about peace. Peace, freedom, and democracy" before the final word comes from his colleague observing that "Yeah. Right. Absolutely. Now all the corpses that litter that battlefield can just lie there safe under the knowledge that they died under a flag of peace and can now happily decompose in a land of freedom."

This may have been a programme intended for entertainment alone, but the political commentary is frighteningly accurate, almost an eerie precursor to the Global events that followed over the course of the next two decades. Simply put, the hasty attempt to enforce a major political change destroyed a nation.

I have long argued that the current consensus democracy model employed by Rwanda is entirely appropriate in the context of post-genocide recovery and nation-building, where justice, politics, and economics must by necessity be allowed to take as smooth a path as possible without undue interference that comes with political lobbying and challenge within a politically plural and proportionally represented parliament.

Rwanda does not have the luxury that some of the countries where such systems exist have in that it does not have the time to allow economic growth to slow or halt.

What benefit would halting such progress bring? And yet the danger is very real that this is the effect such a hasty political change would bring.

Of course, President Kagame cannot go on as the President of Rwanda forever, and indeed the day will come when change will take place.

The President has been clear that he wants to use the next seven years not only to continue the upward trajectory of Rwanda's fortunes, but also to plan for who or what comes next, for what will be the political future for Rwanda.

It is my opinion that he has earned his right to take on this task unimpeded by, and with the support of, the Global North. This time might allow for a more full discussion and consultation within the nation of 'what is the next step on our journey' in order to achieve the necessary buy-in from Rwanda's citizens.

When the Global North abandoned Rwanda in 1994, it drastically reduced the legitimacy of any claim to preach authority on the politics of the region.

And so yes, outsiders are free to criticise; that is their right, but importantly, if they do not appropriately and accurately consider the context of Rwanda when making their criticisms, then it is difficult to take such commentary seriously or with respect.

The writer is a Programme Leader, Criminal Justice at the University of the West of Scotland.

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