Rwanda Pres. Kagame: #MindYourOwnBusiness

This week, Rwanda’s president, Paul Kagame, visited Yale and gave a 30-minute talk followed by a Q&A. Kagame is an autocrat. He has been in power for 22 years. There is not a freedom of the press. Kagame has amended the constitution to allow for a third term in office. Opposition has been repressed, jailed, or killed. Kagame has seen great successes that can’t be ignored either. Rwanda is “economically vibrant, gender and environmentally conscious, technocratically proficient model of what an African state can be.”

Kagame’s presence at Yale was met with protest, unsurprisingly. There is every right for concern about Kagame’s human right’s record. Dan Magaziner, a Yale historian of twentieth-century Africa, was there, listened to the talk, shook Kagame’s hand, and thanked him for his time and perspective. He reports that Kagame’s message to the U.S. was best summarized in a hashtag, “#MindYourOwnBusiness”.

In Kagame’s narrative, the only history that matters is the history that began 22 years ago this past April. The suffering of the genocide and the RPF’s role in ending it is where Kagame’s government draws its legitimacy to condemn foreign hypocrisy (which exists in spades, to be sure) and to shut down its critics. We suffered and you did nothing – so how dare you say something now….

And, apologies Mr. Kagame, but you know that – because you correctly condemn my country for minding its own business in April, May and June 1994. People like you are our business precisely because people who tell others to mind their own business tend to be the sorts of people who leave bodies in their wake.

Kagame, whether intentional or not, brings forward an essential tension of foreign policy. When does a state have a duty to act? It’s not a question to which there is a definitive answer. In retrospect, we can point to cases of United States interference with world affairs that were undoubtedly the wrong choice. That list runs long, and provides legitimacy to Kagame’s stance.

There is no answer to that essential question that a world community would agree on. With every situation brings ambiguity, but it is a conversation worth having. As the two potential United States presidents face off in a debate on Monday, there is a high likelihood that one or both with advocate for regime change as a part of their foreign policy. I caution to slow down whenever that line of thinking is brought into the discussion. The consequences of action are long-term and can extend the suffering of a people. The consequences of inaction, as Kagame points out, can be terrible, as well.

 

I want to thank Chris Blattman for sharing Magaziner’s article. If someone finds my blog and has not seen his, it is well worth your time.

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Covering Gabon: Two Perspectives

Gabon is in uproar over the recent elections. The incumbent president claims to have won with 49.8% of the vote, and the opposition candidate is contesting the results. Protesters have set the parliament building on fire.

Afrobarometer wrote for Washington Post’s “Monkey Cage” Blog this week on what public opinion says about Gabon and why it matters.

The gain the perspective from the ground, AFP’s Marco Longari wrote a piece called “The importance of being there“, which is more than worth your time.

“Stories like the Gabon election give us a glimpse into which direction the continent is taking. Yes, it’s more unrest in another African country. But there are nuances. The response of the people to the situation — this immediate explosion of rage — that tells you a lot about where the country is at. The evolution of the security forces that allow a photographer to cover unrest freely — that tells you a lot about where the country is and where it might be heading.”

Constitutional Coups in Africa, One of Many Democratic Issues

Kamissa Camara penned an overview on one method of sustained legal power by African presidents. They change the country’s Constitution so that there aren’t presidential term limits. Her list from the last 10 years doesn’t include the extended reigns of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, and José Eduardo dos Santos in Angola.

Between 2005 and 2015, presidents in Senegal, Burkina Faso, Congo Republic, Congo, Uganda and Rwanda attempted to extend their terms in office through constitutional or other legal amendments.

To expand on one example, the depth of the issues these countries face can not and should not be left to only Constitutional changes.

In the case of Uganda, president Yoweri Museveni came to power in 1985 in a coup d’etat of Milton Obote. He was a non-Constitutional president from 1986-96, then started his first constitutional term. In the original Constitution, there was a two term limit. In 2005, when it was passed, many claimed that Museveni was pulling the parliamentary strings to make it happen, as he was head of the National Resistance Movement (NRM) party.He had decent popular support, but as his tenure has extended, he has resorted to force upon the populace more often.  Human Rights Watch wrote a piece surrounding the 2016 election campaign. Uganda, and the NRM deployed volunteer ‘Crime Preventers’ in preparation for the election. They were deemed to be partisan bullies as opposed to a real force for stability. Presidential candidate Kizza Besigye has been arrested multiple times for his protests to the election results.

The ability to express opinion in Uganda is suppressed, and has been for some time. The ability to change to the Constitution by a president, technically through legal means, is simply one problem of an overarching problem. The autocratic, paternalistic, and hegemonic regime of Yoweri Museveni is one example of a group of young countries in Africa struggling to secure stable democracies. Pointing to Constitutional changes in term limits is an easy example to point out.

Democracy is hard. Before Western observers get too critical of African nations, let us remember that it took the United States 163 years before there was a presidential term limit, 131 years before women could vote, and 82 years before non-whites could constitutionally vote.