How Kagame has defied Africa's curse

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Andrew M. Mwenda

In September, Paul Kagame completed five years as an elected president of Rwanda. Since he was elected, Kagame has defied many theories about African politics. After his election, he launched an aggressive anti-corruption campaign that has seen many of his close allies go to jail or face prosecution. Some have gone into exile. The only example of such an effort in Africa was by Nigeria's short-lived military ruler, Murtala Mohamed, in 1975. He was killed on his 176th day in office and his campaign died with him.

As the corruption drive gained momentum, Kagame turned to reducing the cost of patronage on his country. He cut down the number of districts from 103 to 36 and the number of regions from 12 to 5. He trimmed the size of cabinet down to 23. He withdrew official vehicles from government officials and cut down their mobile phone allowances. Kagame then turned to create the most innovative healthcare delivery system in Africa and beyond, and pushed money into mass primary education and scholarships for university education. Then he began a general beautification of the city that now makes Kigali one of the cleanest cities in the world.

Kagame's reforms confound existing theories about elective politics Africa. It is argued that because of the neo-patrimonial nature of our politics, elections tend to promote corruption. Politicians want to win support of the masses. But they reach them through powerful intermediaries – opinion leaders, traditional elders and/or religious clerics. To build a winning coalition, leaders offer these ethnic/religious power-brokers jobs, government contracts and tenders and unofficial opportunities to profit from corruption. Corruption is therefore the way the system works, not the way it fails.

This thesis has been largely true. It explains why presidents elected on the democratic reform ticket like Frederick Chiluba in Zambia, Robert Soglo in Benin, Albert Zafe in Madagascar, Bakiri Muluzi in Malawi, Mwai Kibaki in Kenya etc have all turned out to be more corrupt than their predecessors. The same has been true in Uganda after 1996. When we entered elective politics, President Yoweri Museveni found in corruption an ally to build his powerbase.

Another thesis has been that elective politics weakens the hand of reformers in Africa. First, leaders are afraid to remove the privileges of the powerful lest they cause them to withdraw their support. Instead, wasteful spending on the elite rather than the masses becomes the norm. In return, the masses only get occasional access to the national pie during election campaigns where they are given sugar, soap, alcohol and salt in exchange for their votes. To win and sustain popular support, leaders are often afraid to carry out policies that may be painful to popular constituencies in the short term but which are beneficial to the nation in the long term.  Uganda best epitomises this dysfunctional aspect of African politics. Museveni carried out far reaching reforms – deregulation, liberalisation, demobilisation, privatisation, retrenchment, return of Asia properties, reduction of cabinet etc before he entered the phase of elective politics. Since then, reform first slowed then stagnated. Instead, Museveni began to increase the size of parliament, cabinet, ambassadorial appointments and the number of presidential advisors, security outfits, districts and government agencies. And he has also increased their privileges.

By doing the reverse, Kagame has shown us the potential for reform through elective politics – for the most far reaching reforms have been carried out after 2003 when he was elected president. What made Kagame feel that his election was a license to carry out reform that favours the ordinary person rather than to increase the privileges of the elite? Rwanda has a government that is most responsive to the needs of the ordinary citizen than any African government I know.

Kagame's critics have hit back saying that these achievements have been realised at a very high price in individual freedoms. He is accused of muzzling press freedom, undermining judicial independence, creating a rubber-stump parliament, limiting the space for his opponents to do business in the country and running rough-shod over individual liberties. Some of these criticisms are legitimate, many are ill-informed a lot of them lack context. Rather than look at Rwanda's politics as a process of internal growth, many critics simply copy and paste other countries' experiences.

For example, does Rwanda have sufficient intellectual resources outside its government and business sector—the civil society to ensure an effective ideological challenge to the ruling coalition? Does it have a sizeable market/private economy to support a robust and vibrant press? Many commentators wrongly assume that there are many Charles Onyango-Obbos, Wafula Oguttus, Joseph Weres, Charles Bichachis, Joachim Buwembos and Conrad Nkutus in Rwanda's media to provide the intellectual challenge that the aforementioned provide in Uganda.

If we analyse (and not moralise) Rwanda's situation, we realise that Kagame's actions are more a product than a cause of Rwanda's democratic deficit. Rwanda does not have sufficient infrastructure for democratic politics as compared to Uganda and Kenya. Given its social structure (a large peasant population and a small percentage of educated urban middleclass) and its history of genocide (which decimated its already limited intellectual class by death or participation in genocide); Rwanda does not have the intellectual resources to effectively challenge Kagame. To his credit, Kagame has taken effective advantage of this to push through far reaching reforms in Rwanda.

The polity has simply been too weak to generate effective secondary contestations against his reforms. Beyond cutting the privileges of elites, he has carried out reforms to make Rwanda attractive to investment. A lot is missing, but a lot is being done. Between 1962 and 1994, Rwanda produced 1926 university graduates – that was one year's graduates at Makerere University in 1987. Today, Rwanda is outputting over 20,000 university graduates a year.

The future of democracy in Rwanda does not so much lie in legislation – important though that may be. Rather it lies in sustained economic growth and investment in mass education. Over the next generation, these will produce the social forces that will restrain how RPF exercise power. Kagame is, albeit inadvertently, building the foundation for democratic politics in Rwanda.  


amwenda@independent.co.ugThis e-mail address is being protected from spambots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it


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