Zimbabwe was a happy place in April 1980 when Robert Mugabe was elected as Prime Minister and it became independent from British colonial leadership and white minority rule. But it all went awry in 1987 when parliament amended the constitution to allow presidents run for unlimited terms. Thirty years and a series of hyperinflations later, Mugabe is a dictator and Zimbabwe is a failing state. Paul Kagame’s re-election as third term president of Rwanda is reminiscent of Mugabe’s rise and eventual failure.
On Saturday, August 5, Kagame emerged victorious in the Rwandan presidential election, winning about 98 percent of the votes. By conventional indicators, the election was free, fair and up to international standards. The re-elected president is highly revered as Rwanda’s saviour from the 1994 genocide as a rebel leader and breaker of economic distress as president. But like Mugabe in 1987, Kagame’s victory is a direct consequence of manipulating presidential term limits. He initiated a constitutional amendment in 2015, potentially allowing him to rule until 2037.
The vindication is that the elimination of term-limits happened in the confines of the law. But so did Hitler when he persuaded the Reichstag to pass the Enabling Act that helped the Nazis seize power and Mussolini when he used the Acerbo Law to propel the rise of fascism. While Kagame’s achievements abound– from significant economic and infrastructural growth to decreased child mortality rate, there are many who believe him to be a brutal dictator. From accusations of stifling press freedom, killing journalists, suppressing the opposition to allegedly assassinating dissidents, Kagame has all the makings of an African dictator. The power to run for even more elections intensifies this.
One of Kagame’s political opponents, Victoria Ingabare, has remained unfairly imprisoned for belittling the Rwandan Genocide and threatening state security. Another, Diane Rwigara, was suspiciously disqualified from running for office. Speaking to the UK’s Guardian, she described Rwanda as a nation with perfect teeth and hair but with a dark and dirty inside. In a country with a leader who constantly suppresses dissenting voices, a “free and fair” election is not entirely possible. The western media have also signalled the dictatorship alarm. The Economist put out a video expressing their scepticism of Kagame’s rule and its potential longevity. And while their often times shallow-cited and hypocritical criticism of Africa can be exhausting, they are not exactly wrong. Libya deteriorated after Muammar Gaddafi’s death. But he was a serial human rights abuser and an alleged sponsor of global terrorism.
Besides, is Rwanda really developing? Perhaps in comparison to its 1994 position. But in the grand scheme, it remains economically weak. 63 percent of Rwandans live in extreme poverty and 30-40 percent of the annual budget comes from the foreign aid. The World Happiness Report ranks Rwanda in the bottom five of its happiness index. There are also claims, which the government has denied, of figure manipulation to make it look like poverty rates have reduced.
Yet, Kagame seemingly has the people on his side. Mugabe was also popular, but his want for eternal political power ultimately caused grave economic consequences that Zimbabwe has yet to recover from. Besides, supposed economic upturn does not justify Kagame’s years of alleged human rights abuse. Maybe he is truly the man of the people. Perhaps, he is the one best equipped to usher Rwanda into developed nation status. But no modern national-transformation, based on force and opponent-suppression has survived posterity. Ask Hitler, ask Mussolini, ask Mugabe. If history has taught anything, it is that “popular” does not always last. It is not always good.