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Rwanda to Drop Term Limit, Media Hardest Hit

Walter Russell Mead

In the least surprising announcement to come out of Africa in some time, Rwanda appears poised to allow President Paul Kagame to run for another term. The WSJ:

Rwandan voters are expected on Friday to approve a constitutional amendment that would allow President Paul Kagame to stay in office for nearly two more decades, the latest bid by an African leader to push beyond established term limits.

Mr. Kagame has effectively ruled Rwanda since his rebel force ended the country’s 1994 genocide. The current constitution says his presidential tenure that began in 2000 must end in 2017. Though he hasn't said outright that he will run again, he has said that the country should follow the will of the people. State media routinely trumpet his popularity […]

“This is the biggest challenge that we have across the continent: the challenge of saying, ‘Yes it’s time for this one to move on,’” said Yolande Bouka, a researcher with South Africa’s Institute for Security Studies whose coverage includes Rwanda, Burundi and Congo.

What’s happening in Rwanda is part of three developments that everybody who wants to understand global politics needs to grasp. The first is a pan-African trend away from the Potemkin village democracy movement that gullible Western NGOs and aid propagandists have been trying to sell as the “real story” in Africa for some time. The second is the continuing ethnic tension that has produced episodes of genocide and war in the Great Lakes region going back to the end of the colonial era in the 1960s. The third is Paul Kagame’s own effort to build an African Singapore where development comes well ahead of democracy.

On the first trend, the large aid lobby, which is constantly looking for ways to send Western money into Africa through aid pipelines that benefit first-world NGOs, contractors, and their local allies, has been promoting the “transition to democracy” motif for some time. Selling the idea of Africa as an emerging, but aid-dependent, human rights success story keeps the tax money flowing. But, while different countries are at different stages, in many places much of the “progress” has been insubstantial and superficial, and it is now reaching its sell-by date. In order to attract more aid and budget support (resources useful in building patronage and security machines that can they can deploy to tighten their grip on power), African leaders have been willing to sing and dance to the tune the human rights crowd wants to play. So they have solemnly written and enacted lovely paper constitutions that send thrills up the legs of the gullible and easily pleased human rights community. Beautiful elections have been held across Africa in observance of these sacred and inspiring ideals. At one point, helicopters were even air delivering ballots in a crooked Congo election as part of the charade.

But a moment of decision awaited. When the presidents hit their term limits, they have to decide between respecting those beautiful paper constitutions or going on about their business in the traditional way. Since the 1990s, 24 African presidents have reached their term limits; 15 of them tried to amend their constitutions to stay in office and 12 succeeded. If anything, the trend against stepping down appears to be picking up speed; three of the next five African presidents facing term limits are expected to find ways to stay in office.

For most of these leaders, it isn’t a hard choice. Their constitutions only came into existence because of foreign pressure and in many cases the documents don’t have deep roots in local power systems. Voters like the idea of term limits, but African leaders and the cronies and political machines who depend on them often don’t. For the many leaders who are both willing and able to hang onto power, managing Western outrage is merely a practical problem: How do you trample on the hopes of, and spit contempt in the face of, the democracy lobby without losing your access to all the juicy aid the West provides?

The problem is not always as hard as it looks. In most cases, the democracy lobby is only one element of the coalition that extracts tax money from Western taxpayers and ships it, sort of, to poor countries around the world. (I say “sort of,” because much of the aid has a way of going into pockets back home—farm products bought as part of food aid programs, fat consulting contracts to employ development specialists, and so on.) Western governments also have their reasons for wanting to maintain their influence in various African countries. They want, perhaps, to defend the economic interests of home country investors, and are increasingly motivated by security concerns (the fight against terrorist groups). The increasing Chinese footprint in Africa has only made all of this more urgent. The democracy and human rights crusaders are often just the lipstick on the pig, the makeup designed to make the agendas of various lobbies look good to uninformed and careless voters and journalists. The pig still wants to be fed, whether it’s wearing lipstick or not. The farm lobby, the arms companies, and the beltway bandit consulting groups all want their contracts to continue regardless of how flagrantly some African ruler is violating some goody-two shoes, utopian constitution.

Often, then, all or most of the aid keeps rolling even when a leader continues in power past his term limit. As this realization has spread across Africa, respect for paper constitutions has continued to deteriorate. Discovering that we too are only pretending to take them seriously has had a marvelously liberating impact on African potentates. And when you add to that their own awareness that China is prepared to keep buttering dictators like Mugabe for decades without asking him to pretend to believe in a bogus constitution at all, it’s not hard to understand why so much hot air seems to be leaking out of the African democracy balloon these days.

So Paul Kagame’s decision to blow past his term limit is in part a reflection of this wider trend. But there’s more. Rwanda is one of the countries caught up in the bitter and vicious struggle between the Hutu and Tutsi peoples (the word “tribe” in this context is racist, condescending, and misleading). The Belgian colonists favored the Tutsi. After they left, violence between the much larger Hutu group and the much smaller Tutsis has been the most significant recurring feature of politics in Rwanda, Burundi, and the neighboring districts of the Congo. Paul Kagame is a Tutsi who came to power after his mixed Tutsi/Hutu army overthrew the Hutu extremists responsible for the worst (though not the only) episode of mass killing. Ever since, he has remained the Tutsi President of a majority Hutu country and every move he makes is guided by the knowledge that the literal survival of the Tutsi minority depends on his ability to do three things. First, he must stay in power in Rwanda. Second, he must manipulate the political and power situation in the neighborhood to prevent the emergence of another radical Hutu power center. Such a power center would undo everything he’s accomplished and unleash the killing process once again. Third, he must run Rwanda well enough so that over time tensions will diminish and the fragile ethnic peace can solidify into something more stable and enduring.

Right now, neighboring Burundi is experiencing another surge in ethnic and political violence as the largely Hutu power base of the current President (who has also just blown past his term limit) confronts the kind of mixed coalition of Tutsis and Hutus that Kagame led in the Rwanda war. Some of the President’s supporters are echoing the themes of the Rwanda genocide, and the death toll is mounting. The journalists who keep trying to write about the region as if the ethnic conflict did not exist and has nothing to do with current events don’t come out and say this frankly and openly, but from photos and other comments that are slowly leaking out from behind the usual screen of denial, much of the violence appears to reflect traditional Hutu-Tutsi animosity. Again, the press is speaking a language of veiled allusion (the opposition’s arms are reported to be coming from “neighboring countries”), but Rwanda is clearly involving itself ever more deeply in Burundi’s crisis—as it has in the past both there and in the eastern Congo.

Given that, it would be insane to expect Paul Kagame to step down now, and he clearly has no intention of doing so. Under the circumstances, anybody shocked or surprised by the demise of the sacred Rwandan constitutional provision for term limits needs a course in remedial statecraft.

Finally, Kagame’s ambition has never been and indeed could never be to turn Rwanda into a nice Western democracy like Norway. A country with a recent history of genocide in a region still torn by unresolved ethnic conflict is not a good candidate for unguided majority rule. Rather, Kagame’s plan has been to aim for something like an African Singapore: a controlled political system that has some, but not all, of the features of democracy, and a strong, centralized bureaucracy focused like a laser on promoting rapid economic development. The hope is that economic growth will legitimate the political system in the eyes of the people. Lee Kwan Yew in Singapore had similar problems to those facing Kagame today. His resource-poor city state was riven by ethnic conflict, and the regional neighborhood was extremely dangerous. He chose an authoritarian path focused on economic development and since has served as a model for leaders from China to the Gulf to Rwanda.

So those who expected Kagame to put term limits ahead of his strategic objectives were simply fooling themselves or advertising their naïveté. Trying to convert Rwanda into a human rights morality play is one of the examples of intellectually flabby and simplistically moralistic coverage that makes so much of the MSM so pointless. Understanding what Kagame is trying to do, on the other hand, provides the basis for analyzing a genuinely important story in an interesting way. Will his experiment in authoritarian developmentalism keep ethnic tensions at bay in Rwanda? How does the ethnic struggle play into his regional policies? How successful has he been at resisting the temptations of corruption (the curse of authoritarian rule)? To what extent is the ethnic truce in Rwanda turning into something more lasting than a truce? What are his objectives in Burundi? What impact is that country’s crisis having on the internal situation in Rwanda? And what does all this mean for the Congo, where Hutu-Tutsi violence has been the chief cause of well over a decade of conflict (including the conquest of the country by its current President), the most brutal post-colonial war in Africa, and continuing violence and instability?

Any and all of this would be more useful and more interesting than the vague mush the MSM seems happy to serve up about a great many subjects. Nothing is more common among the elite and the cognoscenti than to hear tales about how poorly informed ordinary Americans are about world events. Maybe so, but much of this ignorance reflects the failures of the elite; people who don’t understand the world very well themselves are usually poor at explaining it to others, and too many members of the self-appointed American media and journalistic elite are so immersed in conventional thinking, the globaloney of the Davoisie and pious human rights fantasies that millions of their fellow citizens no longer pay attention to anything they have to say.

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