These are frustrating times for supporters of liberal democracy in East Africa. Over the last two years, Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda have all held deeply problematic presidential elections and the latter two countries have tabled radical constitutional reforms that threaten to cement these so-called democracies into dictatorships. East African leaders have proved themselves very capable of manipulating liberal donor expectations by implementing democratic reforms in name only. The tools and language of democratic politics become means to achieve the elite’s capitalist and ethnocentric goals, while maintaining popular legitimacy.
A few days before the 2017 presidential election in Kenya, Chris Msando, the electoral officer in charge of technology and communications was tortured and murdered under mysterious circumstances. His death may equally have been committed by ruling party supporters (because they went on to win) or the opposition (as they wished to discredit the election). In any case, bloodshed at election time is nothing new in Kenya. The two previous Kenyan elections were hotly contested, with the allegations that the ruling party were cheating being supported by international observers. In 2007, the opposition leader from western Kenya denounced the results of the election as fake. Political leaders of both sides then cynically manipulated ethnic hostility, which boiled over into nationwide riots bordering on civil war. There were over a thousand deaths and mass displacement of hundreds of thousands of people.
A victory for the ruling party was accepted by the opposition with silent fury in 2012. But in the 2017 election, the leader of the opposition refused to accept the same bitter pill and took the government to court. Riots erupted in the opposition strongholds of western Kenya and many feared a re-run of the 2007 bloodshed. Whatever the real result would have been in a straight vote, the murder of the senior electoral officer immediately prior to the election and some blatant cheating undermined the incumbent’s claims to victory. For example, in one constituency, an independent candidate’s extended family of 45 people all turned out to vote for their family member, a senior member of the judiciary; yet when the votes were counted, the candidate had received precisely zero votes – none of her family’s votes had been tallied. However, it was the judiciary itself who had the last laugh and perhaps prevented another mini civil war. The Supreme Court ruled in favour of the Opposition and a re-run was scheduled for mid-October. This decision may have been made primarily to avert chaos, but the judges demonstrated that at least some branches of the Kenyan state are no longer the puppets of the ruling party.
The same cannot be said for Rwanda. As previously noted in this journal, President Paul Kagame has successfully exploited the history of his country to justify the establishment of a quasi-fascist regime. As commander of the rebel forces which won the civil war in 1994 – and brought an end to the genocide against his Tutsi ethnic group – Kagame became the de facto leader of the country and was sworn in as president in 2000. The constitution he helped design in 2003 instituted a multi-party system and contained Article 101, stating that presidential terms should be limited to seven years with no more than two terms per candidate. However, in 2015, the ruling RPF party and its local cadres distributed template petitions to schools, cooperatives, community centres and door-to-door. The petitions read: “We want to amend Article 101 of the constitution of Rwanda so that President Kagame can run for a third term and continue his great work in transforming our nation (etc. etc.)” Since the petitions required a name and national ID number, and were delivered by grassroots-level agents, those not signing in Rwanda’s tightly-controlled bureaucracy could clearly be identified by their absence. Needless to say, there was nearly 100% support for this petition.
Kagame’s party wanted to persuade foreign donors that they were not instituting a ‘president-for-life’ system. The solution was to revert the constitution back to a safer form after Kagame had run his third term. From 2024, the constitution would mandate only a maximum of two five-year presidential terms per candidate. Phew! A victory for democracy? Not quite. The same amendment noted that the 2024 system would be understood as a completely new system, and therefore any candidate, including the incumbent, would be eligible to run for office under these new rules. Given that Kagame has built an unassailable cult of personality, backed up by a fiercely loyal security apparatus, he will almost certainly win any election he chooses to stand for. In other words, the safety valve that was built into the constitutional reforms to prevent the emergence of dictatorship, has effectively handed Kagame the presidency until 2034.
There was little coverage in the regional press of the 2017 Rwandan election, because it was a foregone conclusion. The only noteworthy stories (covered in the outspoken regional weekly, The East African) concerned complaints by the handful of “straw men” opposition candidates that they weren’t even allowed the semblance of a campaign: their public statements were quashed in the Rwandan media, some were placed under house arrest, and opposition rallies – which no one would dare go to anyway – were nearly all banned.
Kagame enjoys near-unconditional support from the regime in neighbouring Uganda, as well as from the ‘international community’, who see him as a developmental leader who rescued his country from the African Holocaust. In rude health and with such powerful friends, Kagame and his RPF party hope to govern with full constitutional legitimacy for the next seventeen years.
In Uganda itself, President Museveni seems also set to become ‘president-for-life’. Like Kagame, Museveni came to power with a gun in his hand and he has increasingly given the impression that it will take another gun to remove him. There is widespread speculation that he is grooming his son, Brigadier-General Muhoozi, as his replacement. Certainly, he has allowed no would-be successor to emerge publicly and has systematically undermined all visible opposition both within and outside his party. Twenty years after taking power, in 2005, a new system of multiparty politics was officially launched but, ominously, term limits were simultaneously abolished. Perhaps it is a coincidence that the first successful efforts at drilling for oil were conducted in Uganda between 2002-04. Although he is undoubtedly still very popular, with each successive election, Museveni’s support on the street and in the media has seemed to gradually diminish while the results at the polls continue to deliver victory. How has he achieved this miracle?
From the ground, it seemed that the 2016 Ugandan election was less compromised by ballot box trickery than by the manipulation of perceptions, thanks to the long-term strategy of the National Resistance Movement (NRM), President Museveni’s political party. Economically, the NRM has built its popular base on widespread patronage, buying support (with brown envelopes stuffed with shillings) from elected Members of Parliament and Local Councilors, all the way down to individual voters, (with little gifts of soap and flour) just before election time. Election Promise 1: Vote NRM and we all Eat Big. This system has worked well for Museveni, despite the inevitable strain on the economy, which invariably plummets 6-12 months after each general election.
The NRM’s other claim to legitimacy is in security. Unlike Kenya, which suffers from serious street crime, Uganda is (or was) a very safe place to hang out, with this author regularly staggering home alone at 4am without ever getting mugged. Election Promise 2: Vote NRM and we will Guarantee your Safety. However, this promise sounds increasingly hollow following a recent crime wave in 2016-17, partly due to the democratic process itself. The NRM created militias of ‘crime preventers’ ahead of the elections, ostensibly to assist the police force in their daily activities, but in practice to act as a counter-revolutionary force in case of electoral violence. A few months after the elections, with no more payroll for these ‘crime preventers’, vicious gangs known as ‘kifeesi’ suddenly emerged, apparently enjoying total protection from the police…
In 2016, Museveni’s NRM party claimed victory with 61% of the vote versus the main opposition party’s 31%. Although there was some evidence of rigging, it is entirely possible that the electorate genuinely prefers to continue with the ‘Devil you know’. Uganda has a large, conservative, rural population and many would seem to prefer a corrupt but stable order, presided over by a wise, tested Big Man. However, it is in the urban areas that opposition is at its most vocal and volatile. This author witnessed youth setting up blockades to prevent the police reaching polling stations and street protests against electoral malpractice being violently crushed.
Internationally, Museveni is much-loved by the US & Eurozone. Besides being friendly to big business – with a ‘strong state, liberal economy’ approach – Museveni has offered up his experienced and disciplined national army as a regional ‘peace-keeper’ mercenary force, helping to make sure that the good guys win in the conflicts in Somalia, eastern Congo and South Sudan. Although the ‘international community’ decried malpractice during the 2016 elections, they may have been secretly relieved that their capital-friendly strongman stayed on in power.
Domestically, however, both the economy and the security situation have started to deteriorate, most likely due to the same selfish and short-sighted tactics deployed by the NRM. The comprehensive patronage system is economically unsustainable and, after decades of government over-spending, the poor man is feeling the downturn. There is nationwide reduced cash liquidity, worrying levels of inflation and precious little employment opportunity. There was the miraculous discovery of oil, but bad deals and unequal allocation of the dividends have failed to deliver the resulting wealth to the people.
Rwanda and Uganda may still enjoy considerable support from the EU, US & UN, but dissenting voices are mounting within Uganda and from critics of the Rwandan regime abroad. If Uganda’s regime falls apart – whether due to economic factors or a succession wrangle – Rwanda will be left without its most powerful regional ally. While an immediate outbreak of civil war in either country seems improbable, the uncertainty following the departure of either leader is far more likely to trigger a coup than a sudden upsurge of democratic spirit in the military. The problem then becomes the acceptance of a new military regime, especially in Uganda, where the population is relatively free-thinking and well-educated. Ugandans have never seen a peaceful transition of power since the colonial handover in 1964, so perhaps they may give the generals a chance to sort their act out. But it is equally easy to envisage a scenario where the army splits into rival factions, which is a classic recipe for civil war. Meanwhile, it is hard to imagine Rwanda in anything like its present form without the God-like Kagame; a comparison may be Gaddafi’s Libya without Gaddafi. And we all know what that looks like…
In all three East African countries, democracy has been touted by domestic and international proponents and propagandists as a way of redistributing power and wealth. All too often, however, it takes on the semblance of a scramble for riches by elites, claiming to act in the name of the people. While such hypocrisy may be familiar (and tolerable) to critics of European democracy, the stakes are much more immediate and deadly in East Africa. In Uganda and Rwanda, vicious (even genocidal) civil wars were concluded well within living memory and the victors of those conflicts are perceived by many to have selfishly held onto power ever since. In Kenya, elites disproportionately control access to land and resources, in a country where the majority are on the borderline of poverty, which is why so many are willing to violently protest stolen elections.
When we are weighing up the merits of democracy versus dictatorship, there is no objective answer. Rural voters make up the bulk of the electorate and tend towards the stable order provided by dictatorial regimes; young people who did not live through the chaos and divisions of the civil wars gravitate both towards the cities and towards change. One conclusion can be drawn without much controversy, however: crude attempts to agitate for ‘more democracy’ in East Africa, especially from abroad, will often just end up being manipulated by the very elites whom democracy aims to contain.