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Democracy in Africa is not a Western imposition

On September 19, Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame confirmed that he would stand for re-election in his country’s August 2024 presidential election, and attempt to win an unprecedented fourth term in office.

“I am pleased with the confidence that Rwandans have placed in me. I will always serve them, as long as I can,” the 66-year-old was quoted as saying in an interview with Jeune Afrique, a French-language news magazine.

It is not surprising that Kagame is gearing up for another presidential contest. After all, it appears that, over the years, Rwanda’s president has developed an effective blueprint not only for winning elections, but also for doing so with seemingly universal public approval.

Indeed, the former army general, who has led Rwanda since June 2000, won the 2010 and 2017 presidential elections with 93 percent and 98.6 percent of the votes respectively. And before that, in his first presidential election in 2003, he had gained the support of 95.05 percent of Rwandan voters.

According to constitutional amendments approved via a referendum in December 2015, Kagame can seek a third seven-year term next year, and has the right to run for further two five-year terms thereafter, meaning he can theoretically remain in power till 2034

On the face of it, seeking another term in office seems to be a reasonable way forward for an incredibly popular and successful head of state.

Rwanda has certainly made significant socioeconomic strides since the 1994 genocide that killed at least 800,000 mainly ethnic Tutsi and moderate Hutu civilians, with many observers describing the country as an African success story.

However, this commendable progress does not erase the fact that Kagame is a ruthless despot and a major obstacle to true democratic progress.

Indeed, elections in Rwanda have been marred by extensive government crackdowns on free speech, independent media, and political opposition since the very beginning. And it is highly suspect whether Kagame would have been able to secure the support of almost all Rwandan voters repeatedly over the years if he had faced his rivals in truly free and fair elections.

The Rwandan government, under Kagame’s guidance, has long engaged in reprehensible lawfare to eliminate those who have sought to challenge Kagame at the polls. Authorities thwarted attempts by presidential hopefuls Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza and Diane Rwigara to stand against Kagame in 2010 and 2017 respectively, for example.

Kigali has also reportedly abducted and assassinated dissidents and opposition leaders, both at home and abroad. Suspected state agents allegedly murdered Patrick Karegeya, the former external intelligence chief and co-founder of the Rwandan National Congress, in South Africa in January 2014.

So, as proven time and again, Kagame is not a true democrat. Thus, it’s impossible to determine with any degree of certainty whether a significant percentage of Rwandans really have “confidence” in his leadership and want to see him run for office once again next year.

Rwanda, after all, is not really a democracy.

Sure, it has all the elementary structures of a democracy and it seems to be able to hold elections on a regular basis. Under this democratic facade, however, Kagame is actually ruling Rwanda like his personal fiefdom. His is an undisputedly authoritarian, anti-democratic regime – and one that many other despots in the region look up to.

In April, for example, while hosting Kagame for a two-day visit in Conakry, Guinea’s military ruler, Colonel Mamadi Doumbouya – who overthrew former president Alpha Conde in a September 2021 military coup – expressed great admiration for Kagame’s de facto dictatorship and even said he “draws inspiration from the Rwandan model” describing it in a presidential statement as an “African reference”.

Fast-forward to September 21, it wasn’t surprising to hear Doumbouya criticise democratic governance as a Western imposition at the 78th United Nations General Assembly.

“Africa is suffering from a governance model that has been imposed on it … a model that is good and effective for the West but is difficult to adapt to our realities, our customs and environment,” he told world leaders gathered in New York.

This is an old trope that Kagame himself has long been using to deflect attention away from his atrocious human rights record.

At his inauguration ceremony in September 2010, for instance, he slammed “the self-proclaimed critics of Rwanda,” and claimed that the “lack of democracy” was not “Africa’s biggest problem”.

More than a decade later, Kagame is still in power, and is still arguing that Africa does not really have a democracy problem. This, despite unelected military governments being in power in Sudan, Gabon, Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso, and Guinea. And supposedly “democratic leaders” like Kagame himself, who remain in power on the back of bogus elections, presiding over many others.

Sure, it is the right and duty of any African leader to condemn and resist any colonial and neo-colonial transgression. This continent has suffered more than enough from Western impositions. But democracy is no longer an exclusively Western model or aspiration. And it is not a Western imposition – in fact, these days Western powers seem to prefer dealing with friendly dictators rather than independently minded and democratically elected African leaders.

Today, the West is not imposing democracy on unwilling African nations. It is Africans themselves, who long for true democracy on the continent.

A study published by Afrobarometer in January 2023 revealed that most Africans – including 77 percent of Guineans – support democracy and would like to see stronger democratic institutions in their countries. In the same study, 74 percent said they reject military governments and 82 percent voiced their dislike for the type of strongman rule with a democratic facade that Kagame has established in Rwanda.

This is the unspoken truth: Africans love democracy and want to see it work. Of course, democracy is not a perfect governance model – no system is. That being said, it’s the ideal vehicle for peaceful socioeconomic development, and Africans know this.

The large-scale adoption of democracy across Africa in the 20th century was essentially a homegrown response to the social injustices inflicted on Africans by colonial and settler regimes. It wasn’t, as Doumbouya sought to underhandedly suggest at the UN, predicated on Western impositions alone.

Look at South Africa’s 1995 Freedom Charter – it advocated for a multi-racial democracy as a remedy to apartheid rule. African democracies are laden with locally agreed standards that are also universally acclaimed values (PDF). They include principles that Kagame, Doumbouya and many other leaders have routinely chosen to disregard: the unhindered participation of citizens, equality, accountability, the rule of law, political tolerance, free and fair elections, and human rights.

Most Africans – myself included – have simply never experienced the true and expansive fabric of democracy, as African leaders have mostly refused to fully embrace or implement it.

In this sense, Kagame’s Rwanda is not an “African success story”, or the “African reference” for successful governance as Doumbouya hypocritically claimed, but a guidebook for newly empowered despots across the continent on how to create an illusion of democracy.

Africans, and Rwandans, deserve and demand better.

Kagame should reconsider his ill-advised decision to run for office again.

Rwanda can become a real African success story – a genuine reference for other African nations – but only if Kagame allows democracy to prosper.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

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