If Nkurunziza shouldn’t go for a third term, then neither should Kagame, right? Wrong!

Saturday June 20 2015

Democracy, said Churchill, is the worst form of government — except for all the others that have been tried.

Indeed, democracy can be quarrelsome over seemingly straightforward issues, causing delays to projects of national importance. Its rules can sometimes seem to be observed, not for the sake of democracy’s advancement, but for their own sake, a situation that, often in the history of democracy, has led to its defeat.

For instance, Adolf Hitler came to power through a democratic election. As we all know, he went on to overthrow the democratic order and establish a fascist state whose warmongering would lead to the Second World War and the Holocaust.

Would it have been in the interests of democracy to overturn his election either through a coup or foreign military intervention? Consider also the democratic promise of the Arab Spring and its subsequent defeat by blind observance of the rules of democracy.

In Egypt, was the military’s decision to overthrow the Islamic fundamentalist Muhammed Morsy in the interests of democracy? In other words, was the military’s undemocratic action in service to the ideals of the Tahrir Revolution?

When does an undemocratic action serve the larger interests of democracy, and when is it a subversion of democracy? Or is there no instance when an undemocratic action could be said to serve the long-term interests of democracy and progress? Two ongoing scenarios in East Africa offer us food for thought.


In Burundi, President Pierre Nkurunziza has subverted the constitutional order by ignoring its two-five-year-term limit. During his 10 years in power, the president has achieved almost nothing. Burundi still has some of the poorest people in Africa. Infrastructure development has been minimal.

Most importantly, Burundi has remained a politically fragile country, only tentatively holding onto the peace brought about by the Arusha Accord that ended decades of civil war in which hundreds of thousands had lost their lives.

In regional diplomacy, the president has played a negligible role. In terms of ideas, he has contributed nothing to the discourse on the culture, economy and reinvention of Africa.

In short, Pierre Nkurunziza is the archetypal African leader, leading an archetypal African state; he is mediocre, unimaginative, non-intellectual, megalomaniac and visionless, leading a people with little hope, presiding over a severely underdeveloped and fragile nation, tottering on the edge of a murderous disintegration.

Nkurunziza’s constitutional coup has brought thousands of Burundians out into the streets, risking both limb and life to protest the absurdity of a man, who has given them nothing, insisting that he has something to offer in the future.

In Rwanda, too, there is a strong indication that President Paul Kagame will seek an unconstitutional third term. But that is where the similarities with the Burundian scenario end. Under Kagame’s leadership, Rwanda has achieved spectacular results in many areas.

In line with the UN’s Millennium Development Goals, the country has significantly reduced poverty, as well as removed all kinds of bureaucratic and cultural obstacles that inhibit women from participating in politics and the economy.

His administration has rationalised the bureaucracy, making Rwanda the destination of choice for business. The civil service is efficient. Today, Rwanda is one of the safest, not to mention the cleanest, countries in Africa, despite coming out of a genocide just a few years ago. Experts now say that Rwanda is poised to become the “Singapore of Africa” in the next couple of years.

Today, Rwanda, a small country in population and size, is a regional diplomatic giant. Most crucially, Kagame’s leadership has engendered pride and hope in a country that, in 1994, had descended to the lowest depths of human hopelessness and depravity.

Kagame has also reinvented customs to serve modern needs (such as the traditional Gacaca courts to handle restorative justice). And he continually challenges the mental attitude that underpins Africa’s underdevelopment, thus adding a crucial dimension to discourse about the continent. In contrast to Burundi, more than two-thirds of Rwandans want him to stay on.

Who should go and who should stay? Are we right to argue that, in the case of Rwanda, blind observance of the rules of democracy may prove ruinous to the country’s and Africa’s interests?

Tee Ngugi is a political and social commentator based in Nairobi.