A few days ago, Rwandans voted overwhelmingly in favour of amending the country’s constitution, to allow current President Paul Kagame, to run for a third 7 year term, and subsequently 2 additional 5 year terms. The result of the referendum means that Paul Kagame could remain in power until 2034. While I clearly understand the thinking of some of Kagame’s supporters, the result of this referendum in my view is an unfortunate outcome for Africa. But before I delve into my reasons, let me state the case on Kagame.
Paul Kagame is in my view one of the most inspiring African leaders of our age. Despite the criticsms of Rwanda’s military’s role in destablising parts of the DRC (and protecting M23 rebels), or the repression of political opponents (via Human Rights Watch) – both of which Kagame denies, he has steered Rwanda’s economy from the pits of devastation caused by the genocide, into one of the best performing in East and Central Africa. And for that he deserves applause and a lot of credit.
However, the result of the recent referendum is a negative tally on Kagame’s persona, and Rwanda’s future for various reasons.
Firstly, while democracy is not homegenous, and while Rwandans have the democratic right to elect to office whomsoever they please, to rule their country for however long they determine, there are certain principles in a democratic setting which go without saying; principles which although not sacrosanct, should be observed, must be observed for a true democratic experience, not only for the benefit of the governed, but also for the governer.
One of the most important of these principles is that no leader is indispensable.
Lets face it, Africa has had a major problem of dictators and leaders who do not want to step down from the lofty heights of political power; from the 36 years of Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea, Omar Bongo Ondimba of Gabon (who ruled for 41 years), to Muammar Gaddafi of Libya, who ruled for almost 42 years, too many African leaders simply fail to walk away from power.
And among the reasons is one of that is totally fictitious in justifying their clinging to power: that the people have decided that they should continue ruling.
But more often than not, it’s not the people who decide; instead supporters who vote don’t even constitute the majority of people in the country. Usually, the opposition will boycott an election that will almost certainly be rigged; opposition candidates will be intimidated, arrested or even attacked during the campaign period; they will be portrayed as traitors, will almost always be given less airtime (or no airtime at all) in the mainstream government controlled media, and the process for election itself will be rushed and biased against them. Indeed stories of irregularities in voting centres within the strongholds of the opposition are common.
All this is done to try and maintain one man’s hold on power.
But can one man have the breadth of knowledge, experience and skills, in all sectors of society, sufficient to enable them make pioneering decisions in all of those sectors?
It’s clear from studying the paths which developed countries took to development that it takes more than one person, more than one political party, more than just a handful of technocrats who are paid to do what they are told, it takes several highly skilled and determined teams, and critically – successive governments of varying colours, working in collaboration with the people, over a period of time, to properly develop a country.
Because if everyone only looked to one ageing, inflexible, controversial, old-fashioned, king-like figure for answers, and there was fear in society,and repression of dissenting views (fear in the cabinet, and fear in Parliament), at some point there will be stagnation, and economy will almost certainly suffer. Those with leadership skills, talents or experience (who would otherwise be of value to society), but who have no way of practicing their talents will either remaing unutilised , or will go abroad, taking with them their skills…. It’s happened before, in Zimbabwe, in Sudan, Cuba, Angola, Ethiopia, Iran, or even in Malawi and if Rwandans are not careful, it could happen again in the next 20 years in Rwanda.
This is why many people consider the actions of Nelson Mandela as good judgement in that he declined to serve an additional term, paving way for younger and effective leaders like Thabo Mbeki to take over.
Paul Kagame may not be clinging to power, but if he chooses to remain for a third term, he will be directly blocking other Rwandans, not only in the current Parliament, but even those outside politics or those abroad, who would have otherwise emerged as competent leaders and helped lead the country to comparable if not greater achievements.
Secondly, attempting to increase term limits to allow a leader to remain in power for longer than the constitution stipulates inherently borders on dictatorship. The assumption in such cases is that there aren’t other capable Rwandans througout Rwanda and across the entire world who have skills, experience and talents which would benefit Rwanda in the same way if not better than Paul Kagame has done. We are already hearing reports that people in Rwanda live in fear. Its exactly like what is happening in Zimbabwe, in Congo, DRC and Burundi, where their leaders have attempted to convince their largely uneducated (or under-educated) electorates that there isn’t anyone else in the country or outside the country capable or sufficiently equipped to run it. This ofcourse is entirely false, but is made to quash the opposition parties and ultimately serve the interests of the incumbent and their political cronies (who are often beneficiaries of everything good that the state has to offer).
In the case of Rwanda, nobody is accusing Paul Kagame of wanting to plunder Rwanda – his record in fiscal discipline is impecable and first class – but the message and inevitable implication embodied in the extension of the presidential term limit is that it’s now ok for other African leaders to extend their presidential terms. Look! Paul Kagame, one of the best of us, has done it, so why can’t we….?
This is what some power-hungry leaders on the continent will be thinking – even if they don’t admit it to their electorates.
This mantra, in the case of inefficient, incapable, corrupt and altogether useless leaders – will ultimateluy translate into either a violent power struggle, repression of opponents, or revolution…. the kind of instability which Africa (with its scale of problems) doesn’t need right now.
Instead of perpetuating their reigns, what Paul Kagame, Joseph Kabila, Robert Mugabe, Denis Sassou Nguesso and others should have done is to create bi-partisan leadership development initiatives that passes on the knowledge, fears/ insecurities and experiences of older African statesmen, to younger future leaders; to the next generation of leaders, people who are more exposed to the world, often better informed, more in touch with the pace of technology and in some cases more in tune with global economic trends. This is important because it could ensure that when they step down (as it would be advisable for them to do after two terms – even in the cases where the constitution doesn’t stipulate term limits) there is systematic continuity, within a democratic setting, and the national vision is not derailed or compromised, as some African leaders have been known to fear.
That kind of approach would not only will win them respect on the global arena, but it would set a good example for other leaders across the continent to emulate. It would be the beginning of genuine good governance.
What holding onto power does in the end is give Africa, and African leaders a bad image. Rwanda has done very well economically, and many African countries can learn a lot from what they have achieved, but some people will now be wondering how democratic the country truly is, meaning this referendum could turn some investors away, towards countries in Asia or Eastern Europe – who have better political landscapes…. something which would be a loss for Africa.
I acknowledge that the 5 year 2 time term limits proposed by the Rwanda referendum could work to prevent future leaders clinging onto power, and that would be a good thing. But how long will it be post-Kagame, before some leader, several years down the line, drunk with power and keen to make their mark, points at Kagame’s long reign and proposes a change of the constitution that will increase that future leader’s terms…?
In writing this article, I’ve resisted to think of Rwandans as short-sighted or blindly patriotic, and I’m sure there will be many checks and balances in the constitutional process to protect it from abuse. But developments such as these on some level reinforce my view that Federalism as they have in Germany, Switzerland or even the US is the way forward for African countries. Because it localises governance, and puts the job of development, commerce, trade, education, policing, etc… into the hands of many people, reducing internal infighting, creating leadership roles for those with leadership qualities, but ultimately creating a climate that fosters rapid growth, industrialisation or trade of epic proportions.
I’ll remain hopeful that Africans will one day learn from people who, through trial and error, finally got it right.