Opinion: Rwanda needs stronger democracy

NAIROBI, Kenya — President Paul Kagame’s victory last week was the latest in a series of elections in this part of the world that have little to do with democracy.

National elections in Rwanda, Ethiopia and Sudan were all foregone conclusions where ordinary voters had very little choice over who would rule them.

In Rwanda, two opposition parties were blocked from running their candidates while the three opponents that Kagame faced were part of his ruling coalition. Not much choice there: Kagame took 93 percent of the vote.

Earlier this year, in Ethiopia, the various opposition parties had been so bludgeoned into submission (and riven with internal divisions) that they stood no chance at all against Meles Zanawi’s monolithic party machinery. Meles’ party took more than 99 percent of the seats.

And in Sudan, the northern and southern ruling parties swept the boards in their respective regions through a combination of rigging, intimidation, opposition boycotts and financial muscle. Once again, little choice.

Under the cover of elections, Africans are experiencing a covert rolling back of their hard-won democracy. What is also being revealed is the duplicity of Western governments that talk the talk of
democracy but offer no resistance to creeping autocracy.

When Kagame, Yoweri Museveni and Zenawi led guerrilla armies to overthrow brutal regimes in Rwanda, Uganda and Ethiopia respectively, Western governments eagerly courted this “new generation” of African leaders who would recreate their battered countries as modern democracies.

Yet each leader has since failed to live up to that promise, instead holding power firmly in their grip with the generous support of foreign donors including the United States. None has yet handed over power or shown any signs they intend to.

Kagame has been Rwanda’s de facto ruler since 1994, Museveni has held power since 1986 and Meles has ruled since 1991.

In Rwanda the lack of democracy is ignored by donors because their millions are spent well on education, healthcare, improving government revenue, reforming land ownership and helping survivors of the 1994 genocide rebuild their shattered lives.

Rwanda, officials say, is “a very good development partner” because money can be accounted for and results measured. The same arguments are made for Ethiopia; less so for corruption-riddled Uganda.

During the Cold War years the imperative among Western powers was to find pliable allies in a divided world. Today the necessities are stability and spending aid money well.

Rwanda offers a much-needed success story. Kagame suppresses basic freedoms and looks more and more like an old-school autocrat but, like Meles in Ethiopia, his people do not steal so funds intended to alleviate poverty and improve lives do just that.

But the focus on development successes coupled with a myopic view of human rights and democracy may store up trouble for the future.

Strongman rulers like Kagame and Meles seem content for now to don the garb of democracy in the form of regular elections but underneath they remain more comfortable in military fatigues.

The benign dictator may be good partner in development, but only as long as he remains benign.

In Rwanda the worries run deeper still. Rwandan society has long been characterized by discipline and order, Rwandans have frequently been obedient subjects of their rulers.

So when Hutu extremist leaders ordered the genocide, ordinary folk did as they were told, turning on their neighbors with the machetes and axes that are the everyday tools of subsistence Africa.

Under Kagame people are still told what to do, even what to say and think in the case of laws that all but prevent open discussion of ethnicity.

Freedom of thought, expression, association and choice are the bedrocks of true democracy, as opposed to the limited actvities of elections that are foregone conclusions. Until these freedoms are permitted to take hold, democracy will be under threat and the fear of a repeat of the horrors of 1994 will not go away.