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Why Kagame succeeds where others fail

By Andrew M. Mwenda

Three weeks before the 2003 presidential elections in Rwanda, President Paul Kagame received a report from the Auditor General; 36 mayors (heads of districts) had misappropriated public funds. He ordered their arrest. But just before the police could apprehend them, senior Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) officials went to see the president.

The RPF leaders told Kagame that arresting such senior district leaders, many of them RPF functionaries, would hurt the fortunes of the party and the president in the elections. Indeed, the RPF leaders argued, most of these mayors provide a critical link between the RPF and their constituents. Arresting them would alienate many voters, the RPF officials reasoned as Kagame listened with stern silence.

Then Kagame responded; he said he cannot compromise the principle of clean and honest government in exchange for votes. As president of Rwanda, he had a responsibility to punish corruption regardless of its effects on his and his party’s electoral fortunes. If RPF felt strongly that its electoral success depended on tolerating official theft, then it should find another presidential candidate because he cannot make such an unprincipled bargain.

The party officials looked at their president in silent but stunned wonderment, but many in admiration. ‘Do not give me an answer now,’ Kagame told them, ‘Go and think about it overnight and we meet again tomorrow so that I can hear your decision.’ The officials went and returned the next morning with an answer: Do what is right.

That same day, Kagame ordered the police around the country to apprehend the mayors and they were thrown in jail. The election was held and he won by over 94%. Because such large margins tend to happen in Saddam Hussein-like regimes, commentators immediately concluded therefore that the system in Rwanda is like that of Saddam.

In here lies the intellectual crisis Africa faces. The so called analysts and experts on our continent ‘ both African and non African ‘ do not address themselves to the internal dynamics driving a political system: how power is organised, how it is exercised and how it is reproduced. Instead, they look at the experience and processes of other nations and in complete disregard of context draw conclusions ‘ if Saddam used to get 99%, any candidate who gets such margins must be ruling like Saddam.

Thus, the conclusion about the Rwandan election was not arrived at by examining its history, social structure, political context, the configuration of its various political forces and the bargains made between the different political actors. For them, election results are supposed to be won by 54%; anything approaching 90% means Saddam-like rule.

Sadly, the RPF has been pushed and tossed around by this attitude and seems to have surrendered. For example, last year, Rwanda held parliamentary and local government elections. European Union observes were at many polling station and they observed a peaceful and orderly voting process. Everywhere, the RPF got more than 98% of the vote. When the election results were announced, RPF had 80%. What happened?

If it was a goodwill gesture on the part of the RPF to demonstrate to the Rwandan people that it is okay to vote for the opposition, I am fine with it. Yet apparently, an EU official told me, the RPF was embarrassed by its victory and decided to ‘rig’ the election in favour of the opposition. This is possibly the first time in history a ruling party rigs for its opponents.

That a party or candidate can win 95% of the vote in a free and fair democratic election is neither abnormal nor impossible although it is rare. In 1961, Julius Nyerere’s Tanzania African National Union (TANU) won 125 out of 126 seats in parliament. Equally, in 1965, the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) won 29 out of 31 seats. Both elections had been organised by the departing British colonial administration. My sister Margaret Muhanga won her seat in parliament with 88.9% in the last election without rigging one vote.

Many observers on Rwanda say its people have an uncanny ability to follow their rulers unquestioningly ‘ one reason ordinary citizens massively participated in genocide. Secondly, the genocide destroyed old centres of power ‘ the political parties, the church, the press and therefore left RPF as the only well organised political force with moral authority in the country ‘ thus giving it considerable political advantage.

More critically, all opposition parties have been integrated (or ‘co-opted’) into government. It is therefore obvious why RPF gets such high electoral margins. At election time in 2003, candidates of all the major opposition parties withdrew from the race in favour of Kagame. The opponent was Faustin Twagiramungu who flew in three weeks before the election ‘ having been in exile for seven years ‘ expecting to win.

So, we still need to answer the questions: Why did Kagame arrest the mayors accused of corruption in spite of the expressed fears of his party functionaries? Was it because he has an uncompromising commitment to ideals? That is partly so. Is it because he feels electorally invulnerable given the above facts? That could also be true. Or could it be that other African leaders overestimate the ability of the corrupt to organise politically to challenge an incumbent?  This is much more complicated.

I am personally inclined to believe that Kagame acts the way he does because he enjoys high moral authority. Many African presidents cannot reign in their corrupt lieutenants because often, leading the pack of thieves are always the president’s closest relatives ‘ wife, mistresses, brothers, brother in law, sons, etc. Unless the president jails his own wife or brother, he lacks the moral authority to reign in other thieves.

When a nation goes through massive societal dislocation ‘ like the catastrophic Rwandan war of 1994 ‘ it leaves its society weakened. Other social forces become too weak to influence the political debate. Consequently, a public spirited winning party can easily rally mass support, organise relatively unified action and pursue far reaching reforms without generating much resistance. Uganda had that opportunity in 1986 but the potential contained in it was not fully utilised. Kagame learnt his lessons from Uganda and has taken full advantage of the opportunity in Rwanda.

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