Observer editorial | Sunday 03 January 2016 | The Guardian
The president and his ilk are damaging Africa by hanging on to power
One of the least surprising New Year’s announcements was that by Paul Kagame, president of Rwanda, who declared he had decided to seek a third term in 2017.
In a televised address notable for its condescension and wholly misplaced sense of noblesse oblige, Kagame suggested he was reluctantly bowing to popular pressure. “You requested me to lead the country again after 2017. Given the importance and consideration you attach to this, I can only accept. But I don’t think that what we need is an eternal leader,” he said.
Kagame has been president of Rwanda since 2000, although his time in charge dates back to the genocide of 1994, when his Rwandan Patriotic Front routed Hutu extremists trying to exterminate the Tutsi minority. Under changes agreed in a recent constitutional referendum, which gained an unhealthy 98% backing among those who voted, Kagame is entitled to stand for a further two terms after 2017, meaning he may still be in office in 2034. This dubious feat of political longevity is enough to make Vladimir Putin blush.
Kagame is correct in one respect: Rwanda does not need an eternal leader. Unfortunately, this is what it seems to have got. Kagame will win again in 2017, not because he is Africa’s answer to Abraham Lincoln but because he has ensured there is no viable alternative. There is no effective opposition to his regime. Political rivals have been shunted aside, jailed, exiled or have died in violent circumstances. As we report today, honest public debate, let alone criticism, is not tolerated. Human rights abuses are legion. Independent journalism is a fiction. In these respects, too, the comparison with Putin’s Russia holds true.
In the past, Kagame’s Rwanda was held up as a model for other African states. His early successes in imposing stability on a country divided and gravely reduced by mass murder stood out in a region beset by internecine conflict. There have been significant economic and social advances, but as Kagame’s authoritarianism has grown, enthusiasm for his rule has waned. EU aid donors expressed concern over the referendum and the US recently suggested Kagame would best serve his country by standing down in 2017. No matter. He is not budging. In his divisive and unstatesmanlike recalcitrance, Kagame reinforces a dangerous precedent. It is one being closely followed, with disastrous consequences, in next-door Burundi. There, Pierre Nkurunziza’s vainglorious insistence on a third presidential term, despite a constitutional prohibition and significant public opposition, has resulted, predictably, in deepening turmoil. Since the crisis erupted in April, pro-regime death squads have killed hundreds, 220,000 people have fled their homes and fears have grown of a resumption of Burundi’s 1993-2005 Tutsi-Hutu civil war that left 300,000 dead.
Aware of the danger, the African Union voted last month to send a 5,000-strong peacekeeping force. However, Nkurunziza warned that such a deployment would violate Burundian sovereignty and would be resisted by force. He has ignored pleas to engage fully in talks with his opponents and a reconciliation forum has been created in Kampala under the auspices of the East African Community. Concerned about a potential “regionalisation” of the conflict, the UN security council also weighed in last week. Perhaps this pressure will spark an outbreak of common sense in Bujumbura and produce a change of course before it is too late. Yet how much easier it would be to avoid this and similar conflagrations if established leaders set a better example. In Uganda, President Yoweri Museveni has held office for 30 years. He is expected to win yet another term in February. Yet every time he stands, turnout falls and still he does not take the hint. In Zimbabwe, Angola and elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa, the same old story plays out. Once in power, self-important politicians experience enormous difficulty in letting go.
Such narrow-minded self-aggrandisement damages national wellbeing, inhibits African development and undermines faith in democracy among peoples desperate to escape the doleful legacies of tribal, colonial and dictatorial rule. In elections last week, voters in war-torn Central African Republic turned out, en masse, in an immensely brave, collective bid to break the old cycles of conflict, poverty and racial and religious bigotry. Their inspiring belief in a better, peaceful, democratic future must not be betrayed again by Africa’s big-headed “Big Men”.