About me.

Andrew M. Mwenda is the founding Managing Editor of The Independent, Uganda’s premier current affairs newsmagazine. One of Foreign Policy magazine 's top 100 Global Thinkers, TED Speaker and Foreign aid Critic

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Against the democracy priesthood

Why Rwanda should follow the judgment or misjudgment of its citizens rather than the dictates of theory

In mid-July, the World Economic Forum (WEF) published its Global Competitiveness Report where it listed Rwanda as having the 7th most efficiently ran government in the world. It was ahead of Switzerland and Luxembourg, the only two European countries on the list. In the same week the upper and lower houses of parliament in Rwanda voted by 100% and 99% respectively to amend the constitution to remove term limits on the presidency. In our “intellectual” debates, we would say the coincidence was because President Paul Kagame bribed the WEF for this rating.

The parliamentary resolution was not surprising because on almost every important indicator – rate of economic growth, decline in infant, child and maternal mortality, doing business reforms, improvement in life expectancy, fighting corruption, public confidence in government institutions, women representation, etc. – Rwanda is either number one or among the top ten countries in the world. And this in a country that had been written off as a failed state only 20 years ago! This explains why Rwandans want the leader who has presided over this miracle to continue in office. It is possible Rwandans are making a mistake. But they should be allowed freedom to try and to err; that is how Rwanda will learn and grow.

Many said that they have an excellently performing president and want him to continue; that their country is still young and its institutions in infancy, so the presence of an experienced hand reassures them. Others argued that Rwanda has social schisms that have not yet fully healed and Kagame gives them confidence that their country will remain stable. The arguments were many and varied and there are a lot of criticisms and counter arguments we can make. But they are what Rwandans in their collective wisdom (or folly) want.

However, the secular priesthood for “democracy and good governance” argued that Rwanda’s decision is antidemocratic (never mind it was a decision of the elected representatives of the Rwandan people and was supported by a petition signed by 72% of the electorate). They said this decision will turn Kagame into a tyrant (which they have always said he is) and will lead Rwanda to catastrophe (which they have always predicted even before the resolution). They did not make any reference to Rwanda’s internal political dynamics. Their argument is based entirely on the gospel.

I criticize this priesthood with a lot of humility because I when I was young and intelligent, I was an altar-boy to it. But now that I have grown old and lost a lot of my religious zeal, I recognise that no political gospel can best decide the destiny of any nation. The feelings and judgment of its people can. But democracy, and the rituals it should have, has increasingly become the most powerful religion on earth, eclipsing Christianity and Islam. My experience with religious people taught me that there are many things we never question just because they are taught in church or mosque and/or are written in the Holy Scriptures. Even when we are faced with overwhelming evidence to the contrary, we hold adamantly to these “truths.

For example, the democracy priesthood argues that good leaders stay in power for a short time and nurture successors. In making this argument the secular priesthood does not even bother to adduce any evidence. The laboratory of politics is history. So let us visit it: The countries that have transformed rapidly over the last 50 years and have enjoyed very smooth transitions – Botswana, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Indonesia, Dubai, Malaysia, Chile, Qatar, China, etc. – had leaders who served for long and without term limits, some dying in office. But this historical fact doesn’t matter to the priesthood. It simply makes an assertion, which should be accepted as gospel truth.

It also means that Rwanda (and through it all other poor countries) should not have politics, its people should not make choices. It should follow the gospel in the holy book of democracy as revealed by the lords of good governance in Washington, London, Brussels and Paris. The problem is that with the sole exception of France, there is no country in Western Europe with term limits.

Secondly in arguing their case against Rwanda’s decision, the priesthood did not address the country’s specificity. Rwanda is just another African or Third World country, and Kagame as just “another African president.” Martin Luther King Jr. once said he wanted his children not to be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character. Rwanda and Kagame should not be judged by their geography but by the analysis of their political dynamics. In any case most African countries actually have and respect term limits; in only nine countries out of 54 have term limits been removed. Therefore the argument that term limits are under threat in Africa is bunk.

But there is always an underlying sentiment behind these arguments of “another African leader” – that Africans are inferior peoples incapable of sound judgment, good leadership or self-initiative. So the international priesthood should decide for us. This is the basis of IMF and World Bank choosing to decide our economic policies, why Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International fight for our human rights; and why some believe our leaders should be tried by the ICC. Yet where citizens of Africa have desired term limits, they have sustained them in the face of attempts by presidents to alter them – in Nigeria, Zambia, Malawi and most recently in Burkina Faso where the president was chased out of the country like a chicken thief for trying to. In Burundi where a large cross section of citizens want term limits, the president’s attempts to stay in office are generating heated contestation.

In Rwanda, the citizens are clamouring for their president to stay. But the priesthood argues that term limits should exist whether the citizens want them or not; Kagame should retire – regardless. It is not what Rwandans want that should form the basis of their democracy and governance. It is what the priesthood has dictated that should carry the day. Democracy in Rwanda should not be a government of the people of Rwanda, by the people of Rwanda and for people of Rwanda. It should be a government of the priesthood, by the priesthood and for the priesthood. If this is the democracy the priesthood insists Rwanda should have, I say Rwanda is better off without it.


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