Paul Kagame may have just been re-elected president of Rwanda, but he clearly puts little stock in elections. Late last month, the man who has ruled post-genocide Rwanda for two decades rejected “Western democracy” and asserted Africa’s need for its own version of democracy. Coming from a man whose opponents tend to turn up dead or imprisoned, the statement is an ominous one.
While Kagame’s words would once have drawn international ire, he has less to fear these days. In Donald Trump, the United States has a leader who prefers to embolden autocratic leaders with his renunciation of moral foreign policy leadership. For good reason, Kagame and his fellow strongmen feel they have carte blanche from Washington to suppress their people while paying lip service to a concept they despise.
It is true that Rwanda has held elections regularly, but as Americans well know, elections alone are hardly the defining yardstick of democracy or democratic legitimacy. One look at the election that put Trump in the White House is enough to illustrate the inherent flaws of certain voting systems, not to mention the need for strong, independent institutions. Democracies need more than voting to survive: equally important are checks on executive power, adherence to civil rights and the rule of law, and a free media landscape — all of which leaders like Trump and Kagame actively undermine.
Still, maintaining the outward appearance of a functioning democracy has served autocrats well for decades. By promising reforms and appealing to the West’s hopes of alleviating poverty, African leaders like Kagame have played the system to their advantage. Rulers such as Kagame maintain a democratic veneer by staging meaningless elections to legitimize their own rule. Their version of “democracy” is simply part of a long-term survival strategy.
Perhaps most disconcerting is how well those tactics work in deflecting international criticism. After independence, many African countries sought national unity within their fractured societies by imposing one-party systems with the promise to relinquish power down the road. Some did, eventually, but many others built the repressive regimes we see today.
Kagame’s hold on power, for one, is still justified through a vague notion of “African-style democracy” supposedly based on common consensus rather than individual votes. It is not coincidental that Diane Shima Rwigara, one of Kagame’s most vocal critics, was barred from running against him on obscure technicalities and is now facing charges of tax evasion and bribery. She is hardly the only Rwandan presidential hopeful to pay dearly for challenging Kagame’s position.
The “wave of democratization” that hit Africa in the 1990s has not altered the way many African nations are governed. In fact, as the number of procedural democracies has increased, substantive democracy across the continent has declined. Those façades serve to hide human rights violations and pervert the rule of law to silence opposing voices.
The irony is that many of these leaders come to power with the full backing of the West. In what was then Zaire and is now the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Laurent Kabila was described as a “beacon of hope” by US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright when he overthrew dictator Mobutu Sese Soku in 1997. Kabila may have changed the country’s name, but any hopes for a democratic or republican Congo were dashed when he ended up being as vicious as his predecessor.
Twenty years later, Laurent Kabila’s son Joseph has shown the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Joseph Kabila, who succeeded his assassinated father in 2001 and won at least one of his two terms in a free and fair election, has come to the end of his constitutional term limit and is supposed to leave. Kabila the Younger has opted for a different option: postponing presidential elections indefinitely to cling to power. The end result is that Kabila is still in office nearly a year after he was supposed to step down.
All of this is happening in the name of “democracy,” of course. The DRC’s electoral commission claims more time and money are needed to prepare the vote, in line with Kabila’s stated goal to hold “perfect elections, not just elections.” In reality, Kabila has unleashed a crackdown that is plunging the country into civil war: At least 27 protesters were killed in clashes with security forces in August. If Kabila has resorted to violence, it is because the DRC’s formidable opposition movement continues to grow. Like his counterparts in Mozambique, Zambia and Rwanda, Kabila has tried to make sure his country’s opposition leaders find themselves in prison or killed off.
Fortunately, Congo’s foremost opposition figure — Moïse Katumbi, former governor of Katanga province — has escaped Kabila’s clutches. Katumbi was forced into exile last year before Kabila’s intelligence services could threaten the judiciary into sentencing him on questionable charges of hiring mercenaries. Seeing through those political machinations, voters in the DRC have continued to rally behind him and Katumbi is widely considered the most credible contender to bring the current constitutional crisis to a peaceful conclusion. Increasingly, there are signs that Kabila’s ability to instill fear is cracking. Katumbi’s fellow dissident, Felix Tshisekedi, helped demonstrate this with a bold return to Kinshasa, where his supporters were met with tear gas.
There is no telling when Kabila will finally give in and step aside, but an election on its own is not enough to signal a democratic transition. For that, the DRC would need to have a judiciary as independent as that of Kenya — where Chief Justice David Maraga defied the president who appointed him and annulled the contested Kenyan election results. That president, Uhuru Kenyatta, has drawn inspiration from Joseph Kabila in vowing to “fix” the judiciary. Then again, it also puts him in the same league as Trump, who has challenged the US court system’s legitimacy multiple times over unfavorable rulings.
In the meantime, at least Kenya’s judges have rebuked Kagame’s vision of undemocratic “African democracy” more powerfully than any Western capital ever could.
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