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Rwanda: An Evolving Coconut Republic

By George B.N. Ayittey
When former President Bill Clinton made a historic trip to Africa in March 1998, he hailed Presidents Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia, Isaiah Afwerki of Eritrea, Laurent Kabila of Congo DR, Paul Kagame of Rwanda and Yoweri Museveni of Uganda as the new leaders of Africa taking charge of their own backyard. As it turned out, the so-called “new leaders” were just old win in new bottles.

Barely two months after President Clinton’s return to the U.S. from his Africa trip, Ethiopia and Eritrea were engulfed in Africa’s most idiotic war. Here were two of the world’s poorest countries receiving food aid fighting over a piece of worthless real estate at Badme on their border. They would hammer each other, apologize for the deaths of innocent civilians, take time to bury them and then come back and pound each other again. The war, which raged for two years (1998-2000), cost both countries over $1 million a month and hundreds of thousands of dead people.

The rest of the so-called “new leaders” turned out to be reform acrobats and crackpot democrats who went after each other’s throat in Congo’s war. It is the same old cycle of one truculent betrayal after another. As Africans are wont of saying: “We struggle very hard to remove one cockroach from power and the next rat comes to do the same thing. Haba!”

On August 25, 2003, Rwanda held a farcical election that broke all records – even by coconut standards. Paul Kagame, leader of the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF), led rebel soldiers that ousted the rump Hutu extremist regime of General Juvenal Habryimana that orchestrated the slaughter of more than 800,000 Tutsis in Rwanda over a 3-month period in 1994. Subsequently, he established a coalition government Hutu moderates, Pasteur Bizimungu and Faustin Twagiramungu as President and Prime Minister respectively. Kagame kept the post of defense chief and vice-president.

To his credit, Kagame restored peace and stability to Rwanda, a country ripped apart by ethnic hatred and massacre. He rebuilt schools and nursed the economy back to health. In 2002, the economy grew at an impressive 9.9 percent.

But Tutsi  paranoia and fear proved over-arching in a country where  the Hutu make up about 85 percent of the population, Tutsi 14 percent and the remaining 1 percent by  the Twas.

The coalition government set up by Kagame unraveled. The Tutsi-dominated RPF wielded almost exclusive military, political and economic control and tolerated no challenge to its authority. According to The Economist (Aug 30, 2003):

“The RPF dominates all the levers of power: the security services, the bureaucracy, the judiciary, banks, universities and state-owned companies. Its members find it easier than non-members to win government contracts and licenses.

Those outside the circle often feel bitter” (p.32).

It was the same politics of exclusion.  Faustin Twagiramungu was pushed out of the coalition government in 1995 and went into exile. Dozens of other critics of Mr. Kagame’s government also fled the country. When Pasteur Bizimungu, another moderate Hutu politician, resigned as president in 2000 and set up a rival party, the government immediately banned it.

Kagame took over the Rwandan presidency in a secret ballot election by government ministers and legislators. In 2002, Kagame’s government jailed Bizimungu, charging him with illegal political activity and threats to state security.

When Kagame announced an election date for  Aug 25, Faustin Twagiramungu returned from exile in Belgium and set up a party, the Democratic Republican Movement, to contest. It was promptly banned by the Kagame regime.

Twagiramungu then ran as an independent but many of his supporters were harassed by the police. On the state-owned media, Kagame’s campaign received prominent mention while Twagiramungu was vilified for being “divisive.” Even the National Electoral Commission called him to accuse him of running a hate campaign, a charge echoed by the executive secretary of the National Unity and Reconciliation Commission.

Twagiramungu dismissed the charge, saying anybody who opposed Mr. Kagame was branded a hatemonger. In the months leading to the vote, Kagame’s government actively quelled any serious opposition. Those seen as posing a threat to his hold on power were arrested; others disappeared.

Faustin Twagiramungu, viewed as a threat, found his campaign stymied at every turn by government security forces. His rallies were canceled, his workers arrested and his brochures seized. “While Kagame flew from rally to rally in his presidential helicopter, Twagiramungu could do little more than hand out his business cards. At least, he joked, the cards are easy to swallow if his supporters were caught with one in their hands” (The Economist, Aug 30, 2003; p.32).

On the eve of the voting, “police arrested 12 of Twagiramungu’s provincial organizers, saying they were preparing election day violence” (The Washington Times, Aug 28, 2003; p.A19). On election day, there were four names on the ballot, although Kagame, who is Tutsi, worked aggressively behind the scenes to neutralize his rivals, all of whom were Hutu: Jean-Nipomuschne Nayinzira and Alivera Mukabaramba.

His campaign persuaded Alivera, the only woman in the race, to pull out at the last minute and endorse Mr. Kagame. On the streets of Kigali, not a single opposition poster or T-shirt or leaflet could be spotted. But everywhere, there were photographs of the bespectacled Kagame. “In Twagiramungu’s home town, soldiers  reportedly looked at ballot papers and ordered those who voted the wrong way to try again” (The Economist, Aug 30, 2003; p.32).

Amnesty International denounced the government for instilling a “climate of fear” among the population (The New York Times, Aug 26, 2003; p.A6). “One group of peasants interviewed by the side of a road, refused to express any opinions about the government” (The Economist, Aug 30, 2003; p.32).

The results? Naturally, President Paul Kagame won 95.05 percent of the vote and will remain president for another 7 years. His leading challenger, Faustin Twagiramungu, won 3.62 percent and a third candidate, Jean Nepomuscene Nayinzira, had 1.33 percent (The New York Times, Aug 26, 2003; p.A6). How did Western donors react to Rwanda’s elections?

Scratching their heads, they would say: “Well it was not perfect, but . . . At least, Kagame did not win 99.9999 of the vote. The opposition candidates won some votes. Moreover, Kagame will serve only another 7 years; not for life. So there has been progress.” Indeed, this was the exact conclusion of the European Union observer mission in typical double-speak:

Rwanda’s presidential election did not entirely meet “free and fair” standards but was an important step toward democracy. The observers noted voter intimidation and  stuffed ballot boxes. “The optimum conditions for a free and fair election were probably not met, but this presidential is a promise for the opening of a new democratic era for Rwanda, the head of the observer mission, Colette Flesch, said” (The New York Times, Aug 28, 2003; p.A6).

This is a disgrace. How could the head of the observer mission say the optimum conditions for a free and fair election were probably not met? Was she asleep at the switch in Rwanda? Africa does not need this kind of double talk but straight talk.

A coconut election is a coconut election is a coconut election. No spinning would salvage it. Said an irate Alison Des Forges, a senior Africa researcher for Human Rights Watch: “To call this an exercise in democracy is not an accurate description by the standards of anyplace in the world. How can you talk of democracy when people are not free to express themselves? (The Washington Times, Aug 28, 2003; p.A19).

Expect this coconut election to be repeated in August 2010. Already, the same old tactics are being employed: intimidation and harassment of opposition leaders and their supporters as well as the silencing of dissent. Anybody who disagrees with the policies of Paul Kagame is “divisive” or sympathizer of the genocide.

Let’s not ask about the other “new African leader” – Yoweri Museveni of Uganda. Back in 1986, he declared ebulliently: “No African head of state should be in power for more than 10 years.”  He is still in power 24 years later.


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