By Andrew M. Mwenda
President Paul Kagame last week won presidential elections by 95 percent of the vote. Such high performance was common in Sadam Hussein’s Iraq and other dictatorships. Basing on this analogy, many observers have concluded his victory was a product of political repression. But such an approach ignores the internal political dynamics that drive Rwanda and thus strip it of its history, context and specificity. A serious discussion of Rwanda must be rooted in its internal dynamics.
There is a widely held perception that Rwanda is a police state. I take this view seriously because it is widely shared by many residents and visitors to that country. Indeed, I have on many occasions argued with Kagame about it. But since he counters this argument by saying it is based on prejudice rather than knowledge of the country, we need to find a more scientific tool to guide our analysis.
If Rwanda is a police state, then it should indulge in extensive repression. The notion of repression means the state uses force to suppress citizen rights and to silence their demands. The existence of repression implies some norm of freedom; that people in a country are free to express themselves and to place their demands on the national political agenda.
Many people think there is or should be an abstract and universal standard of repression. But such a universal standard carries many problems depending on the specific circumstances of the country. The best way to overcome this is to provide a conceptual link between the notion of repression and the subjective feeling of being oppressed. If the subjective feelings of the oppressed can be shown to conform to the abstract standard, then there is no problem. But in the absence of such a conceptual bridge, we face an intellectual dilemma.
If Rwanda is a repressive state relying on the police to subdue people, then its citizens should hate the police. If its judiciary is compromised and unable to deliver impartial justice, citizens should feel so. However evidence shows the contrary.
The World Values Survey is the most respected source of research on attitudes of citizens to public institutions globally. It researches on institutional trust (the degree to which individuals in a country have confidence in its institutions like government, parliament and public administration). In its 2008 survey it found Rwandans to have the highest confidence in their public institutions of any country in Sub Saharan Africa.
Looking at institutions that should be the agents of repression in a police state (police and courts), 92% of Rwandans believed that in dispensing justice, their courts do not act under pressure from other powers; and 88 percent have trust in the police to be honest and fair. Rwanda was in the top ten countries with the highest trustworthiness citizens had in their public institutions in all indicators alongside the world’s leading democracies: Austria, Norway, Finland, Ireland, Switzerland and New Zealand. In Africa’s ‘democracies’, only 27 percent of Tanzanians and 23 percent of Kenyans trust the police. Democracies like South Africa (80 percent), Namibia (81 percent) Malawi (79 percent) scored less than Rwanda regarding the independence of the judiciary.
In a 2007 Gallup Poll on perceptions about corruption (one way rulers dispossess their citizens) only 22 percent of Rwandans thought corruption is widespread in their country. In ‘democracies’ such as Zambia and Mali, 90 and 91 percent of their citizens respectively felt corruption is widespread in their country. The median for Sub Sahara Africa was 74 percent. Someone may argue that Rwandans are so deeply repressed, they lie to pollsters. But how come other repressive states like Saudi Arabia, Burma and North Korea do not score highly to be alongside democracies? Has Kagame bribed all these institutions to falsify results for him?
If Rwanda is a police state, we need a better and more nuanced explanation than mere accusations and assertions. Any conception of repression in Rwanda collapses when supposed victims feel differently. The only way to save such a deductive theory is to create a new one to explain the incongruity. And this is the dilemma critics of Kagame face.
Karl Marx faced this conceptual problem too. He had argued in his Labour Theory of Value that capitalists exploit workers by making them work more hours (surplus labour time) than was needed to create their wages (necessary labour time). But when the workers he claimed to be exploited did not feel that way, Marx propounded a new theory of ‘false consciousness’ i.e. that they are unaware of their ‘actual’ situation. Marx then called for a vanguard party to unmask the social myths and religious doctrines that prevent people from seeing things as they are.
However, such reasoning overlooks the very possibility that this may not be a problem of misperception. The concerned party may have his own standards based on their experience. This may cause him to make judgements about his situation that are quite different from those of an outside observer armed with a deductive theory. All freedom has a context.
Take the USA as an example: After 9/11, there has been extensive build up of security checks especially for people travelling to that country. They take our fingerprints, bank details, photograph our eyes etc. In airports, they check us up to our underwear. In abstract terms, it feels like entering a police state. In real terms, we accept these intrusions on our privacy because we know the context that has necessitated them.
In Rwanda’s case, people who lived through genocide feel certain restrictions (like ethnically loaded campaign slogans) are necessary to maintain stability. This may cause them to look at their political system differently from an outside observer. Therefore, in explaining contemporary Rwanda, we need to take the feelings of its people seriously.
Such an approach must begin at the bottom and ask what ordinary people think and feel given their context. I spent two weeks in rural villages of Rwanda recently doing exactly that. People confirmed the aforementioned survey findings. Arming ourselves with our prejudices and looking for an extremist fringe in Rwandan society to confirm them cannot be a respectable basis for fairly judging a government.