Voting, term and age limits are but a small part of democracy

Sunday August 6 2017

Left: Rwanda's Democratic Green Party candidate

Left: Rwanda's Democratic Green Party candidate Frank Habineza with his wife, arrive at a polling station in Kimironko, Kigali. Right, the presidential candidate casts his vote on August 4, 2017. PHOTO | CYRIL NDEGEYA | NMG 

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A few days ago I attended a conference at the University of Stellenbosch in South Africa, on African cities and their evolution. My brief was to speak about post-genocide Kigali and its baffling transformation over the last 23 years.

Baffling? Yes. As with Rwanda itself, there are many people who wonder what happened for Kigali to be the way it is today: Fast modernising, clean, safe, and something of a magnet for conferencing. Little in Rwanda happens by chance. The city’s transformation has therefore been deliberate, part and parcel of a national transformation project.

That, though, is not the story for today. Today I want to focus on the presidential elections, which are now behind us. As you read this, much of Rwanda is in celebration, caught up in a climate of cheer, not the climate of fear some people were touting a while ago.

After saying my bit about Kigali and the political context in which it has evolved and how it has influenced or driven the evolution, some people were left puzzled.

Instead of confirming the claim that the country is a one-party state, I had argued, forcefully, that it wasn’t. I named all the 11 registered parties, eight of which play direct roles in running the country.

All this was new, as was the revelation that the way the government is organised and run, is dictated by Rwanda’s constitution, which leaves no room for power monopoly of the kind that pre-dated the civil war and the genocide against the Tutsi.

For many years they have been reading and hearing that there is no opposition in Rwanda. They had not heard of the Democratic Green Party of Rwanda whose leader, Frank Habineza, was running against President Paul Kagame, or even PS-Imberakuri, whose leadership decided to neither support nor oppose him, and to let party members and supporters make individual decisions on the matter.

During a tea and coffee break, one young woman accosted me and asked: “So there is going to be an election in your country, right?”

I responded in the affirmative.

“And your president is expected to win, right?”

Indeed, he was, I said.

She quipped: “So what really is the point of the elections?”

I should have seen that coming. It is not the first time someone asks. Sometimes people ask because they are genuinely curious and want to be better informed. Others ask in order to make the point that the exercise is meaningless. My reading of the intentions behind the questions usually determines the length of the answers I give.

Truth be told, in circumstances such as in Rwanda’s where the incumbent is guaranteed to win and win massively, there are some grounds for arguing that elections should not be held, that the candidate should simply be anointed. That, however, misses a very important point.

The high-quality elections we all would like to have in our countries can only be arrived at if the organs and individuals that are responsible for organising and conducting elections are afforded the opportunity and are facilitated to practise or rehearse their roles.

They cannot get it right without going through several episodes of trial and error. History shows that even in the mature democracies we seek to mimic, there is a time when elections were characterised by thuggish behaviour by candidates and their supporters, cheating, bribery, and rigging.

If today their elections are generally clean and if citizens expect nothing less, it is because they acquired the capacity to organise elections and to improve their processes through years of practising.

Equally important, there is a tendency in Africa for people, including those who should know better, to think or even talk as if democracy is all about voting and such things as term limits, and age limits. Democracy is a culture, a political culture that is acquired and that evolves with time.

People are not democrats because they say they are. A democrat must behave as one, and that comes about only through acquisition of the habits of fair play and tolerance.

And the acquisition of the habits happens over time, as people get to learn that political competition is at its best when it is not a do-or-die affair, when those who compete and those who support or oppose them accept that winning is only the other side of losing. The more elections people participate in and the more they are peaceful and orderly, the more they acquire the habits of fair play.

If we agree that all this is true, then it matters not whether we know in advance the winner of any election or not. What matters is that members of the public, and the individuals and organs that organise elections get the opportunity to practise, make mistakes, learn from them, and do better next time.

There are several examples of this kind of learning in Rwanda, not least by the electoral commission, whose capacity for organising elections in and outside the country is manifestly greater today than it was the last time Rwanda had presidential elections in 2010.

And, as I have said before, even opposition candidates agree there has been lots of improvement in the way state organs conduct themselves.

Frederick Golooba-Mutebi is a Kampala- and Kigali-based researcher and writer on politics and public affairs. E-mail: [email protected]