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By Joseph Rwangatare, 28 April 2015, The New Times (Rwanda)
The next three years will be election season in the Great Lakes region. This year, Burundi and Tanzania will go to the polls. Next year Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) will. In 2017 it will be Rwanda and Kenya’s turn. You might say it is a period of a rich harvest of democracy. If that were all, we would celebrate and make merry.
But it is not. We still get reminders that in addition to regular elections and political competition, democracy requires presidential term limits to be complete. This saving grace of democracy does not take into account whether the quality of life of citizens matches the frequent comings and goings of leaders or not. Conversely, the absence of these spells grave danger and may lead to democracy not taking hold.
Those of us who live in this region know that this representation is not entirely true. All too often, we have seen other, more dangerous threats to democracy. One of them is the failure of leadership to transform the nation and raise the living standards of the people. Failure of this sort results from the absence of a vision for the country, or regarding it, not as a nation but a collection of its parts, and identifying with only one or several of those parts. Inevitably this leads to lack of accountability and loss of legitimacy.
The other, and the logical extension of the above, is the politics of exclusion and the use of violence as a political tool. In some instances, violence has become an accepted aspect of political contest. Rwandans know this very well because we have been victims of such politics, both at home and outside the country. The experience has taught us to organise our politics differently, accommodate all voices and agree on how to move forward together.
Our neighbours in Burundi, know it, too, and one thought that they were ready to do things another way. It seems they have not. It was once normal practice, and still happens in some countries, for political parties to have a youth wing, which in essence were the paramilitary wings of the party. These are organised, armed thugs meant to intimidate rivals so that they do not participate in the political process of the country. They help create a climate of fear and thereby silence voices with alternative views. In short, they choke democratic practice.
But we do not hear the same loud denunciation of militarisation of politics from our self-ordained protectors. Occasionally, you hear a few pious noises bemoaning the use of violence. There is even some handwringing suggesting helplessness in the face of such acts. We do not see them wield the stick with the same threat of bringing it down hard on alleged offenders as we have seen it done in less threatening situation or when countries are exercising their right to defend their interests. In such instances, there is no such moral anguish or feeling of powerlessness.
Again Rwandans know this only too well. We suffered most from institutionalised violence, both as a nation and as individual citizens. The interahamwe, which were the youth wing of the ruling party in 1994, turned into an armed militia and were used to achieve a double purpose: to deny other parties a role in the new multi-party politics, and more diabolically, to commit the Genocide against the Tutsi. In both instances, they were used to enforce the ideology of hate and exclusion.
The world saw the interahamwe transform into an armed militia, but did nothing about it. They saw them commit the genocide and did nothing about it. They fled the country to D R Congo, reorganised and rearmed and continue to be a threat to Rwanda, and still nothing is being done about it. Today, in another country, a local incarnation of interahamwe by a different name is doing exactly the same thing: unleashing violence on those they don’t agree with. Typically, the world is watching and doing nothing about the imbonerakure militia in Burundi.
Apparently, the choice to use violence to enforce a certain viewpoint is a legitimate democratic choice as long as there are periodic elections and a frequent change of leaders. This region has seen disastrous examples of militarising politics in the past. In the 1980s in Uganda, the Uganda People’s Congress (UPC) used its youth wing to hound alleged sympathisers of the then NRA rebels and anyone they did not like. Thousands of Rwandans were victims of UPC youth thugs They were forcefully removed and returned to Rwanda, which refused to accept them. For a period, they were stateless.
In Kenya, in the 1990s, KANU used its youth wing to intimidate rivals and subverted their meaningful participation in the nation’s politics. Even in supposedly peaceful Tanzania, violence at election time is increasingly becoming a political tool, especially by the ruling Chama cha Mapinduzi (CCM). This kind of thing is the greatest threat to democracy and development. The lesson from this is that we should not be concerned only with the form of democracy, but more with its substance, not just with its processes, but more with the impact on citizens.