Monday, February 15, 2010

Moving Farther and Farther Away from Democracy

As I write this, reports, both formal from NGOs like Human Rights Watch and informal from friends and colleagues resident in Rwanda and in the diaspora, continue to pour in about the excesses of the current Rwandan government. The RPF continues to tighten its grip on the socio-political sphere while taking extra-ordinary steps to appear democratic. Where is the international community in all of this? At this stage, I can only be heartened by Commonwealth's announcement that it will monitor Rwanda's upcoming elections. Where are representatives of the EAC, APRM and the AU? I have little faith that the Americans, Brits and even Canada will hold the RPF to account for its lack of democratic accountability and transparency.

I want to situate two pieces of information that I received today in broader context. First, I received a news report that the government has splurged on luxury jets. Second, I received word from a colleague that Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza is due to be arrested tomorrow (16 February 2010) at 2pm Kigali time. Let's situate this information in state theory, notably the concept of neopatrimonialism. In particular, I will demonstrate that Rwanda is less democratic today than the RPF-led government claims.

Neopatrimonialism is a concept that states there is no separation of the public and private realms. In non-academic terms, this means that the politics of those in power (currently the RPF) trump the functioning of the institutions of the state. This means that the government can declare that it will arrest a political opponent at 2pm the next day because it does not fear the repercussions from other institutions of the state. In a functioning democracy, and this is the theoretical norm, there is a clearly articulated separation of powers between the executive, the legislature and the judiciary. Post-genocide Rwanda, just like pre-genocide Rwanda, exhibits a concentration of political power in the hands of one individual. At the moment, that individual is Paul Kagame.

Kagame markets himself to international audiences as a benevolent and thoughtful leader who has brought economic development and social reconciliation to Rwandans. This is indeed the case if one does not venture beyond the confines of Kigali. Rwanda's capital is indeed a testament to the ability of any country to rebuild in the aftermath of conflict. However, looking only at Kigali's brilliance masks the fact that at least 85% of Rwandans (MINCOFIN statistics, 2006) live below the poverty line.

Kigali's gleaming exterior also hides the fact that Kagame delegates only the most trivial of tasks. He has his hand on virtually every political, social and economic decision taken in Rwanda. For anyone who doubts this, I suggest you read Joseph Sebarenzi's God Sleeps in Rwanda as he writes about how Kagame skillfully kept his distance while engineering his downfall as Rwanda's Speaker of Parliament.

Beyond this concentration of political power in one individual, neopatrimonial governments award personal favours to other elites to secure their political power. This is why Rwanda has such a large cabinet, a bloated senate and numerous political posts with no institutional mandate. If these favours are not enough to assure Kagame that those closest to him are loyal, he has also instituted imihigo (performance) contracts with local officials. Officials at all levels of the bureaucracy sign this contracts directly with Kagame in public signing sessions. In addition, local officials sign imihigo contracts with individual households in their bailiwick. Those who do not meet their arbitrarily assigned development goals are fined, imprisoned, and in some cases worse. For academic analysis of the sanctions meted out to ordinary Rwandans, see Ingelaere's Living the Transition .

In post-genocide Rwanda, personal favours takes on a different meaning. Yes, the country is one of the least corrupt in the world, let alone Africa (where I think Westerners completely mis-understand how African states and societies intermingle; African states are no more or less corrupt than Western states, it is only that the corruption is of a different texture). For Kagame, personal favour means he will not threaten, harass, beat up, imprison, or kill you.

Another good example of the insecurity of Kagame's rule is the RPF's Oath of Oneness. The Oath is a solemn declaration that individual Rwandans take (most are forced to take it) to publicly demonstrate individual commitment to RPF rule. In taking the Oath, individuals vow to faithfully serve the party and accept that any attempt to get out of the party will be interpreted by party elites as an act of treason.

Mechanisms like the imihigo contracts and the Oath of Oneness actually reveal the extent to which Kagame does not legitimately enjoy the consent of the population he governs. If he had legitimate consent, would he need to impose himself on every nook and cranny of the Rwandan socio-political realm?

Lastly, the third feature of neopatrimonialism is the misuse of state resources. A good example is the recent news that the government owns two private jets, each valued at USD50 million each, allegedly for the "exclusive" use of the President of Rwanda (the government does not deny ownership, only that they are for the President's exclusive use). Beyond the ownership of the jets is the fact that the RPF tried to hide its ownership in registering the jets to a specially-created South African company.

There are other examples of the RPF's misuse of state resources, including the toothless ombudsman's report from mid-2008, and the use of state coffers for RPF presidential and parliamentary campaigning.

Long story short, under Paul Kagame and his RPF, Rwanda is not democratic; it never was. This is wholly contradictory to the RPF's message that the country is actively democratizing as the basis of peace and security, both in Rwanda and the Great Lakes Region more broadly.


  1. I've been a faithful follower of your blog since its commencement and I very much want to applaud your efforts. As you've noted, it is not easy "swimming against the tide." Trust me, many Rwandans (I included) highly identify with what you write.

    My hope is that, as English becomes the lingua franca, more people will learn the language quick so as to read your wonderful work-and that of many others.

    However, I doubt whether this move is intended to help the peasants (or the Hutu). Probably, just another form of class/ethnic hegemony.

    Can't wait for the next post!

  2. Oh, if only I could write better in Kinyarwanda...or better yet, go back to the country and speak to peasants directly....

    thanks for your kind words!

  3. Dear Thompson,
    One could say you live in Rwanda. You posed the question above about why the Rwandan president imposes himself on every Rwandan life! I can say it is because he has fears and does not trust anybody, knowing the conditions in which he took power. He knows well the gap between the real votes he obtained in 2003 elections and the reported ones. So, he knows the measure of his popularity, the outcome of the fear he invested among population. " Qu'ils m'aiment ou pas, pourvu qu'ils me craignent". In other words it means, “They will support me by will or fear”. So they have has political advantage to maintain fears on poeple.
    About the economy and finance, it seems that there is a deliberate policy to concentrate the economy in the hands of RPF, so others will depend on it. Somehow, in our country because of our economy structure, poverty drives the individuals'political behavior/attitude. Slowly, the have made poeple to understand that there is correlation between adhering to RPF and have access to resource(job,trade...).How can you explain that a political party holds restaurants in some rural areas and those who do not eat there are taken as ennemy? One newspaper, Umuseso said that RPF gave bribes to some international journalists to portray him as it wants. This reminded me what I read about former Gabon’s president Bongo, who financed elections in France in support of Chirac (if I remember well). Everyone knows that popular banks, the biggest bank network are transformed in RPF property- It is "Partie-├ętat". I think the regime will not behave differently from the former Brundian one.

  4. Je vous ecris en francais car je sais qu'en tant que Canadien vous comprenez aussi le francais, sinon faites une traduction:

    "Vous les europeens pour qui vous vous prenez??? vous passez votre temps sur notre politique, occupez vous de vos oignons et de ce qui vous regarde. ce qui est sure ce que Kagame ce qu'il fait est mieux de loin que ce que ses predecesseurs ont fait.... Pendant le genocide, vous avez dis klk chose??? vous prenez tjrs vos bagages et quitter le pays comme si vous etiez important plus que les autres rwandais qui restent et perissent, vous abandonnez et ne faite rien tandis que c'est vous qui allumez le feu...Merde a vous! bande d'inconscients!! Apres vous venez nous parlez de la democratie...occupez vous de votre politique et laissez nous tranquille! quelle democratie vous nous parlez??!! allez jouer ailleurs (DR Congo, Soudan, Cote d'Ivoire...) pas chez nous! bandes d'idiots!! Si vous croyez que vous allez ramener le desordre chez nous, eh ben vous vous trompez, car les rwandais on vit mieux maintenant qu'autrefois, restez avec votre democratie a la con!"

    De la part d'un Africain