How one of Africa’s distinguished scholars has been misled to become hostile to a government that should be his natural ally
Prof. George Ayittey is one of the most thoughtful and influential intellectuals on contemporary Africa. He has been consistent in his condemnation of Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame specifically and the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) led government generally often referring to it as a dictatorship. In a recent tweet, which has motivated this column, Ayittey argued that Rwanda under Kagame is repeating the monopolisation of power by one ethnic group as the regime it overthrew.
Some of Ayittey’s criticism is valid for there are many democratic deficits in Rwanda. While many of these deficits are structural and can therefore only be resolved through gradual change, some restrictions (on mass media, on civil society and political parties) can actually be overcome through legislation and sheer political restraint. Yet most of Ayittey’s criticism is misinformed or lacks context. Indeed, part of his criticism suggests a near exclusive focus on particular aspects of the country that ignore the wider process of change taking place in Rwanda.
By any measure, post-genocide Rwanda has set itself apart from most of Africa as a model reformer in nearly every field. Any judgement has to take into account reforms and political practices that directly or indirectly enhance or impede the cause of freedom. This is especially so given that democratisation is a journey, not a destination; its realisation is a process, not an event. In other words, democracy is not a discrete or dichotomous variable whose existence can be expressed as “yes” or “no”. Rather, it is a continuous variable we can only express as “more” or “less”.
For example, when did the United States become democratic? Was it when it issued the rights of man in the Virginia Declaration of Rights (1776) or when it extended the vote from property-owning white males to universal white male adult suffrage? Was it when it emancipated slaves (1865) or when it extended the vote to women (1920) or when it passed the voting rights bill (1965) that removed the last barriers to blacks voting? It is fair to say that each of these reforms improved on the democracy.
Rwanda’s democratic journey is also characterised by these tentative hold-ups even though it has made many advances forward. Even I often get frustrated by reckless actions by some Rwanda government officials towards regime critics. Yet there have been many deliberate reforms towards democracy in Rwanda: The empowerment of women, the creation of local councils from the village to the district where ordinary people manage their own affairs and impact public policy, the registration of political parties and allowing them freedom to open branches up to the village level, the National Dialogue which is an open forum where citizens hold leaders to account etc.
Rwanda has built the largest network of fibre optic cables of any country in the Third World. This has reduced the cost while increasing access to the internet. With its One-Laptop-Per-Child program, the government of Kagame – perhaps inadvertently – is building one of the most promising platforms of democratic expression. One has to laugh at the futility of some Rwanda government officials suspending physical newspapers that are read by a few hundred people when millions of Rwandans get their information from the internet. Rwanda has not even bothered (and cannot succeed even if it tried) to block the million and one websites, micro-sites, blogs and social media where most debate takes place.
Democracy, Robert Dahl observed, has two elements: contestation and participation. Contestation refers to how freely the political opposition contest the rulers; participation, how many groups participate in politics to determine who the rulers should be. Contestation is about liberalisation of the political dispensation; participation about inclusiveness. Each of these variables will play out differently in each country.
While political participation is high in Rwanda (because of local councils, the national dialogue and internet spread and access), contestation is low. Yet this is a deliberate constitutional design that does not reduce the value of its steps, however tentative, towards democracy. The constitution entrenches power sharing. For instance, no political party can hold more than 51 percent of cabinet; and the president of the republic and the speaker of parliament cannot come from the same political party. Yet Ayittey argued that power in Rwanda is monopolised.
This constitutional design discourages the polarisation that produces heat and gives colour to political contests. But it does not diminish the content of the contest; it only changes it – the incentive structure encourages cooperation over confrontation. Every political party in Rwanda knows that regardless of its numerical strength in any election, it has to work with others in a government of national unity; hence the better not to be too belligerent lest you alienate potential colleagues in cabinet.
Rwanda’s situation is not very different from Malaysia – a consociational-type democracy where participation is high but contestation is limited between political parties by consensus. But unlike Malaysia where political competition is designed around ethnic groups, Rwanda prohibits ethnicity as a platform for political organisation. In Rwanda, the platform for democratic organisation is the political party. This is understandable in a country where ethnic polarisation led to genocide.
The fundamental beef most Hutu and Tutsi critics have against Kagame is that he has resisted their attempts to make themselves politically indispensable through control of particular ethnic constituencies. Kagame has resisted the politics of elite cooptation (appointing a few powerful Hutu personalities as the bridge to Hutu masses). Indeed, elite cooptation is the main (not only) basis of legitimacy of governments in most Africa because it shows “inclusion.” Once elites are “included” in powerful positions, then they can rally their co-ethnics to support the sitting regime.
Kagame has predicated his presidency on performance by his government. Hence, the delivery of public goods and services to all its citizens regardless of their station in life is the main source of his legitimacy. It explains the high quality of service delivery in the country. It is Kagame’s political genius and greatest achievement and is unrivalled in post-independence Africa. But equally it is the greatest source of frustration among elites. But while this delivers for the ordinary people, it takes away the power of elites to control particular groups and hold the system hostage. These frustrated elites find sympathy in Ayittey’s writings on Rwanda.