By Andrew M. Mwenda
Iam currently in Rwanda witnessing their presidential election campaign. The campaign lacks the usual drama of many African general elections: the rallies of opposition candidates are not broken up by the police, their supporters are not beaten by private militias, candidates do not appeal to ethnic sentiments to garner votes and there is no bribery of voters with sugar, soap, salt and alcohol. Candidates address issues like education, health, access to clean water, agriculture, youth affairs, infrastructure and women’s rights.
All the candidates are strong and seasoned politicians: President Paul Kagame (Tutsi) is the clearly the strongest standing on the ticket of the RPF. His main challenger, Dr Jean Damascene Ntawukuriryayo (Hutu), is the deputy speaker of the chamber of deputies (parliament) and a candidate for one of the oldest political parties in Rwanda, the PSD. It is also the second largest political party in the country. Campaigning for him is the leader of PSD, Dr. Vincent Biruta (Tutsi) and president of the Senate.
The third candidate is Prosper Higiro (Tutsi) survivor of genocide and deputy president of Senate. Finally is Alvera Mukabarama (Hutu) presenting PPC; she is senator and a former presidential candidate in the 2003 election. Mukabarama pulled out of the race in favour of Kagame protesting former candidate Faustin Twagiramungu’s strategy of appealing to ethnicity to garner votes in a country that needed unity. All the candidates agree that ethnicity should not be the basis of the election.
Under the law, every candidate is supposed to be given equal time in publicly owned media. Uncharacteristic of the general African pattern, this rule is enforced to the letter. In the government owned Kinyarwanda newspaper, all candidates appear on the front page. On television and radio, all candidates are given equal time. Even in the pro-RPF newspaper, The New Times, all candidates have equitable space for their campaigns and programmes.
The dominant section of the Western media, armed with a set of assumptions and prejudices about Africa, find it difficult to accept this. How can Africans campaign on issues other than tribe? How can electoral competition be devoid of violence and bribery? Because the reality does not fit their prejudices, they conclude that something must be wrong. So they run around trying to find anyone who can tell them something that will confirm their prejudices. Often, they find a representative of the extremist fringe of the Rwandan politics. He/she immediately becomes the ‘respected expert.’
The ‘real’ candidate for such journalists should have been a Victoire Ingabire, whose only ticket was ethnicity. For then, her campaign would have fulfilled their expectations of an election in Africa. A ‘genuine’ Rwandan election is one where Hutu would be pitted against Tutsi and the two sides would quarrel bitterly about primordial ethnic hatreds. In the midst of trading these accusations, tempers would flare and violence would erupt.
In the context of a weak state, anarchy would spread. The Western journalist would finally have had the election she was looking for. As violence spreads, the journalist would call for international help to save ‘Africans’ from their tribal feuds and their venal rulers. The humanitarian groups would sing the chorus. The image of Africa as a failed continent that needs outsiders to save it would be restored. Previously the strongest supporter of free and unfettered freedom of speech and competition, now the same journalist would turn around and write about how Africans are incapable of managing democracy. Soon academics, again from the West, would publish ‘research’ showing how democracy in Africa leads to violence and state collapse.
A small but noisy section of the African elite, unable to question this stereotyping of our politics, disregarding the specificity of our context and suffering from intellectual laziness, sing the chorus of the master. This elite class does not see that Western journalists and academics come with a set of general assumptions (and prejudices) about Africa. They also have a set of principles about politics drawn from their own context. They try to superimpose these on our countries in complete disregard to the unique features of our societies. It is these ignorant assumptions that find popular expression among African elites.
As I have traversed villages and towns attending campaigns, interviewing ordinary people who turn up for these rallies, I have been impressed by the Rwandan people and their leaders. The people have said ‘NO’ to the demons of the past and refused to be diverted by those who preach hatred and division. The leaders have refused to resort to ethnic appeals too. Most voters I talked to agree that for now, government should ban those politicians who seek to use ethnicity as a platform for elections.
However, Western media and their cheer leaders in Africa dismiss these candidates as if they are not in the campaign. The dominant section of Western media is still stuck with Ingabire because she represented what they want to see in Africa ‘ an ethnically based campaign. Powerful opposition politicians in Rwanda with experience, stature and entrenched political parties like Ntawukuriryayo and Biruta are treated as if they do not exist. There may be issues of an ethnic nature that need to be legitimately debated. But the country is still trying to recover from this kind of politics that contributed with such vengeance to the fragmentation of this society and enabled those seeking genocide to easily gain and exercise control over this country.
It is an experiment whose future we cannot easily foretell. But for now, many Rwandans across the ethnic and political divide believe these restrictions against ethnic politics are necessary to promote harmony in a country where ethnic politics led to genocide. For now we can see the consolidation of a politics based on public service where Rwandans are citizens not clients. It may not be possible for Rwanda to banish the demons of ethnic hatred in a generation.
However, what is needed is to build a strong state capable of resisting these centrifugal forces, promote public service and economic growth. We can hope that as more people go to school, their incomes increase and society transforms, issues-based politics can consolidate and supersede ethnicity.