“The Dark Continent”. The colonialists made this Africa’s tag while it laid subservient to their interests. Years after the last colonial flag was lowered, many Africans are yet to experience real freedom. Self-styled, faux messianic rulers continue to provide reasons to retain Africa’s degrading tag. Rwanda’s latest referendum aptly shows why Africa may still be the Dark Continent.
On December 18, 2015, almost 6.4 million Rwandans turned out to cast votes in a milestone referendum. The turnout represented 98.3% of the population of this small east-African nation. Interestingly, an overwhelming 98.3% of the voters supported the move to excise limits for the presidential role, effectively allowing their ruler to stay in office until 2034. At face value, the massive numbers mean that Rwandans love their president and want him to remain longer in office. However, this is Africa where numbers do not always tell the full truth.
Rwandan President Paul Kagame officially became president in 2000. However, unofficially, he has been a de facto leader since 1994 when his rebel forces assumed control of Kigali, the country’s capital. This was at the time of the infamous Rwandan genocide, which claimed over 800,000 lives. Kagame came in at a time in which his country needed rescuing. He was their messiah, the shiny knight riding at a gallop to rescue his people.
To be fair, Kagame’s credentials are quite impressive. Official data shows that the fortune of many Rwandans has improved in his presidency. Poverty levels have dipped to about 45%; life expectancy is now up to 63.5 years, and Rwanda is reputed to have the highest primary school enrollment rate in Africa (96.5%). Rwanda has also been adjudged the second easiest place to do business in Africa, after South Africa. Although foreign aid forms an important component of Rwanda’s budget, Kagame has outlined plans to move his country’s economy from agriculture to services.
The laurels above paint a picture of a country in good shape. However, this has come at an immoral price. Several human rights groups allege that Kagame, in line with the “despot’s rule”, crunches human rights for dessert. Dissenting opinion is not tolerated. Forced disappearances, imprisonments and murders are some of the crimes for which these groups have indicted the Rwandan strongman. The opposition is muzzled, effectively rendered powerless—in a supposed democracy.
In Rwanda’s version of democracy, the opposition Democratic Green Party claims it was not allowed to rally support against the referendum. How do you hold a referendum if no one is allowed to campaign for “No”? That effectively makes it an endorsement by rubber stamps, not a contest between two opposing groups. The overwhelming approval of Kagame’s elongation may be due to Rwandans essentially having just one choice.
Setting aside the speculation of probable causes, the Rwandan polity highlights a dark side of African leadership, or, dare I say, lack of leadership. Paul Kagame, at 56, is a toddler compared to Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, who at 91, has clung to the reins of power since 1980. Africa appears the choice destination for rulers whose ultimate aim is to die in office. It is Africa’s millstone, weighing down on its neck—ruler-ship in place of leadership.
These sit-tight rulers have a common aura of “messianic sparkle” around them. They see themselves as the best thing that ever happened to their respective countries, the only ones fit to rule, divinely anointed to take their people to the Promised Land. Some, like Kagame and the late Gaddafi, succeed in fostering economic growth, while others, like Mugabe, succeed in wrecking their economies. So much for being messiahs!
Leadership experts agree that one hallmark of good leaders is their ability to mentor others to replace them. Leaders build leaders. Africa’s bottom-glued rulers fail to acknowledge this. When you feel that you are the ONLY ONE fit to govern, in a country of several millions, then even the famed Narcissus may likely lose to you in a ranking contest. If some persons feel you are the ONLY ONE fit to govern, then, those persons need a psychological evaluation.
While millions languish in poverty, African autocrats live in eternal fear of losing the mouth-watering perquisites of office. In doing so, they miss out on something bigger—statesmanship. It is not about claiming that the people want them to stay. Many times, creative chefs cook the popularity polls. With Africa’s high illiteracy level, the “people” may not even know what is best for them. Even if they want you, it is a “want”, not a “need”. The late Nelson Mandela could have stayed in office for much longer. He surely had the people’s support. Yet, after spending 27 years in prison, he stepped down after one tenure, not even two. That real statesman will always be respected.
The Rwandans have made a huge commitment to Paul Kagame. They should take it a step further by cloning him. Since he is the only fitting screw, clones will ensure that should he fail to live forever, an exact replica will be on hand to continue steering the ship. Since African despots usually do not have a credible succession plan, should they die, the instability from jostling for positions will cause chaos in their countries. Africa can chose to remain the Dark Continent, or choose something far better.