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African countries are not generic

By Andrew M. Mwenda

Why we need to use the results of the referendum in Rwanda to think instead of relying on prejudice to judge

In 2014, President Blaise Compaoré of Burkina Faso sought to amend his nation’s constitution and remove term limits so that he could run for the presidency again. His citizens took to the streets in anger, burnt down parliament and literally chased him out of town and office. He now lives in exile in Ivory Coast. In 2012 in Senegal, President Abdoulaye Wade wanted to run for a third term. The opposition contested his aspiration in court saying he had already served two terms. Court ruled (I think correctly) that the constitution had been amended during his first time and could therefore not apply retrospectively. Wade went to the polls but was defeated.

In April 2015, Nigerians went to the polls and in expression of disapproval voted President Goodluck Jonathan out of office. Nearer home, President Pierre Nkurunziza of Burundi sought to run for a third term in mid 2015. The opposition said he had served both his terms as provided under the Arusha Accords. Nkurunziza argued term limits were introduced in the constitution during his first term and can therefore not apply retrospectively. The matter went to court and judges (again I think correctly) ruled in favor of Nkurunziza. However, his efforts to stay in office have stimulated violent contestations, an attempted coup and now a slow descent into civil war.


Again in 2015 in the Democratic Republic of Congo, President Joseph Kabila, sought to amend the constitution to remove term limits on the presidency so that he can run again. The people rose in protest and literally shut down the capital Kinshasa. For weeks there were skirmishes between police and citizens until the president tactically withdrew the proposal.  To this degree therefore, the claims by US President Barack Obama (and a host of African elites who worship him) that attempts by our presidents to cling to power beyond their constitutional mandates stimulate instability holds some water.

I, however, disagree that this insight should be applied to every nation of Africa as if our states and their politics are generic. The best evidence for this is recent developments in Rwanda, a neighbor to both Burundi and DRC.

While attempts by presidents in these two later nations have stimulated instability, in Rwanda, this process has been carried out without any incident. Throughout 2015 there were citizen demands to amend the constitution and remove term limits so that President Paul Kagame can run again. Kagame initially openly opposed the demands and made his case public. Instead of finding popular support for his position, Kagame faced a citizen-driven movement that collected 3.7 million signatures (72% of all registered voters) to pressure parliament for the amendment. Other political parties in Rwanda’s government of national unity made a similar demand.

Kagame’s own political party called a delegates conference where they demanded he accepts to be their candidate in 2017. The president tactically refused saying if this is a popular demand, he wants to see the results of a national referendum. He permitted no time to campaign for his third term. More than 98% of registered voters turned up of whom 98.4% voted for the amendment. These figures had actually been predicted by a July 2015 opinion poll commissioned by the respected Uganda think tank, ACODE and conducted by the respected international polling firm, IPSOS.

But Kagame’s critics never give up. They argued that the signatures, the poll findings, voter turnout and the final vote for YES were all a result of Kagame’s manipulation and intimidation, not the true feelings of the people of Rwanda. Are Rwandans so docile that they accept everything Kagame wants silently and obediently? Don’t the examples of Burkina Faso, Burundi, Nigeria, DRC, etc. inspire them at all? The Rwanda Electoral Commission conducted the referendum in the diaspora as well at 30 Rwandan missions abroad. It is clear that Kagame has no ability to intimidate voters in these foreign lands. While the YES vote inside Rwanda was 98.4%, the diaspora was 98.66%. So how come Rwandans abroad, far beyond Kagame’s intimidation, also voted YES in overwhelming numbers?

In any case, the examples of Senegal, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, DRC and Burundi above clearly show that Africans are not passive victims of their political leaders’ chicanery. Contrary to the prejudices by Western media and a section of African elites, our people have consistently taken their destiny into their hands and rejected leaders they don’t like. This they have consistently expressed through successful civil wars, elections, military coups, and popular insurrections. Secondly, because of low levels of institutional development in Africa, elections tend to stimulate violence in many of our countries. This is largely a result of weak state capacity due to limited human, financial and technological resources and the infancy of our nations. It is made worse by limited opportunities outside of the state. Most people seeking to make a career look towards the state for jobs or contracts. This increases the economic attractiveness of politics in the context of very weak states. Therefore, contest for power tends to impose heavy stresses on the body politic.

Yet Rwanda has proved exceptionally able to navigate this process with the least stress. The referendum was conducted without a single incident of violence where even a fly was harmed. Rwanda cannot suppress its 12 million people so overwhelmingly because it lacks the technological, financial, ideological, and institutional resources to achieve such a feat. Even apartheid South Africa, which had all these resources in abundance, and banned all political organisations that challenged it, failed to suppress people’s aspirations.

In many ways it is difficult to explain to biased people the situation in Rwanda. Human rights groups claim that Kagame runs a “despotic regime”. I have been visiting Rwanda for the last 15 years and have never seen a Rwandan police officer, leave alone a soldier, assault a civilian – whether during ordinary law enforcement or during a protest. Yet this happens daily everywhere else in the world including Western democracies. In USA, for example, police routinely kill innocent and unarmed civilians; in 2015 alone, 1,200 were killed. Rwanda must be a unique tyranny where the state does not employ any instrument of coercion to secure compliance with its rules. The lesson is simple but fundamental. African countries and their politics are shaped by different factors. Amending the constitution to remove term limits is certainly bad for Burundi but definitely good for Rwanda. If it was not, Rwanda would be like Burundi.

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