Democracy is the road, not the car


Climate of fear and other clichés

It is election season in Rwanda, cue the clichéd headlines, it’s almost like you can guess them before they even go to print. I got a contact from an old friend who is a journalist in UK, I didn’t want to bother, he had already written his story, but he just needed quotes and pictures. I called “Climate of fear” in our betting bracket last month, right on cue, Amnesty – Climate of fear, bing, we have a winner. Couldn’t they pick another word, apprehension – no, not scary enough, climate of fear is perfect. I would say Rwandans were apprehensive in the days leading up, waiting to see the candidate list, there was uncertainty for sure, but not fear. The Western Human Rights organizations paint themselves as honest brokers, but they have their interests as well, they find out facts and wait till they have the maximum impact. Like if a doctor knew you were sick but they waited till it would have the maximum impact, like your daughter’s wedding, and yell it out to shame you “You have hemorrhoids!”  Then others talked of Rwanda ominously being the future model for African nations, to ditch the pretense of democracy in exchange for clean streets. This is also a misnomer, Rwandans hate the concept of one size fits all, and it is blanket solutions, like structural adjustment, that caused the most damage. Again, there is a notion that Africa is homogenous and models are just replicated like in manufacturing. Every nation is unique, our history in Rwanda is tragically unique, a nation would have to go through similar tragedies to understand. When Emmanuel Macron said African problems are “Civilizational” I was incensed, but if you look at it another way, that our problems with the West are caused by a clash of civilizations. We have different mindsets.


The Hegelian Dialectic vs Ubuntu systems

In order to understand the Western way of thinking, one must understand the Hegelian Dialectic, it was the key to Western domination of the minds of others. It basically says this, there is no absolute truth, one proposes a thesis, it is countered by an antithesis, and the two merge in a Synthesis. It is how you get your university degree, it is how you reason in a Western framework. There always has to be counterview to your view, there are two sides to every story…. In reality, there are more than 2 sides, there are as many sides as people, but only 2 are chosen. When the West looks at Rwanda, they think there must be another side to the story, and this side should be given equal value in the conversation. This leads to everything being a clash of narratives. In Ubuntu, the Truth is not relative, the Truth is the Truth, and it is a fixed concept, not a fluid triangulation between positions. The basis of Ubuntu is “I am, because, you are” people define each other, rely on each other, compromise for each other. This is at odds with the individualism promoted by the West, of Identity politics and fragmenting society to its basic elements. The Democratic experiment is over, the idea of parachuting down democracy has been disproved. We have to redefine democracy in our own terms, to match our current social and economic development. We are told that democracy brings development, yet China has pulled more people than ever out of poverty. Democracy can hinder development if the society already corrupt, as in Kenya, where tribal Lords divide up the votes and spoils for themselves. I asked my African friends which was more important, Democracy or Development? Majority said development was more important, especially for the extremely poor.


Parachuting Democracy

In this piece, here, I was astounded to see the last 28 years explained so perfectly. In the Post-Cold War hangover, around 1990, the west was drunk on democracy, it was democracy that defeated the Soviet menace. All over the world, governments were falling down, new democracies rising phoenix-like from the ashes of dictatorship. Africa remained the same, so the West decided to give us a push. Aid could be used to civilize us, to make us democratic. Aid was no longer connected to economic needs but democratic reform, debt relief was the other carrot. The stick was also the carrot, removing the carrot was the punishment. So Africans created a democratic charade, elites created parties, pretended to hate each other in public, all while carousing in private. The West saw a gap in civil society, and they filled this void with NGO’s. Now these NGO’s would be an arm of direct action by foreign governments into African politics. The results are obvious, and invariably the same. They fund a foreign NGO, pick a sexy cause, devise a program, draw up a budget and zoom. The fundamental error is not involving Africans; so they never truly understand the problem, you patronize the people you are meant to help, you are not accountable to them but your donors. They produce receipts, not results. Then when they talk about a given subject, they are seen as foreign, the government dismisses them as biased foreigners, they play the nationalist card and we support them. We need NGO’s that raise money locally, that are accountable to local people. For example, people identify problem, seek foreign donors, but never appraise if it was effective, especially when some use our poverty to get rich.


Democracy is not a car, the gave us shiny democratic models like they were cars. Do you want a Democratic or Federal system, this one has all the features, including 2-term limit to stop overdrive. Democracy is the road on which these vehicles drive, or our institution gets stuck in the bush



Democracy can only be built from the ground up, it can never be parachuted down, it can never be imposed on a nation by aid cuts or sanctions. True democracy has to start at neighbourhood level, and rise up, not top down as the West wants it. This exercise of democratization is over, even in the West, Democracy is under attack because the economic benefits are enjoyed by the few, and not the many. This concept of linking aid to democracy is detrimental. Why should a baby die from lack of immunization because a civil servant in the West decided their country wasn’t democratic enough? Democracy did not build the West, it came along later when people wanted a share of the gains and to secure their property rights. To feed the roots of democracy in Rwanda, we will have to democratize all levels, let Cell-Akagari, Sector-Murenge, District and Governors be elected directly. Open up the field for Independents to run, free of party affiliation, just as public service. Many who failed to get on the final ballot were better served running for MP, but that avenue is closed for Independents. The vote at the moment is whether to continue the status quo or not. In this regard, it is overwhelmingly tilted towards staying the course. It would be a leap into the dark to try another option, it is like losing a nice warm blanket that you are used to, some people tell you the blanket is evil, but it makes you warm inside. That is why the West fails, there are no intellectual arguments that can outweigh feelings. They think our nation must take a leap in the dark and they hope a safety net called democracy will save us.


Never change a winning team

A good friend of mine called Gilbert Rwabigwi wrote an excellent piece, it summed up all my hopes and fears for my nation. Hopes for continued progress and stability, and fears for the long-term continuity of government. What is the RPF doing to attract new blood? After the last election, in an explosion on hope, anything seemed possible and a smooth transition seemed viable. Then came the calls from the Party Establishment “Never change a winning team.” It was clear, the establishment was sticking together, even against the president. The status quo remained. This now meant that the next leader would have to be picked out of this uninspiring bunch, because any newcomers would not get time to learn on the job. None of the other leaders were as inspiring as Kagame, all had fatal flaws, so the writing was on the wall even back then. Watch out when you hear “never change a winning team” or if you do, for it is a sign of things to come. The RPF needs new blood, new ideas, new methodologies, or it risks becoming complacent like other once all-powerful parties. The greatest hero of our president is Julius Nyerere, a true statesman of Africa, he understood that the objective was not to rule till he died but to oversee subsequent leaders. He oversaw two successive presidencies before he died, he famously intervened to stop Jakaya Kikwete in 1995 “Kijana, kaa chini” sit down boy! If Nyerere ruled till he died then TZ would be like Zaire after Mobutu.


When losing is a mortal sin, you make cheating a sacrament


That is the problem of African democracy, it is a game of life and death, it can mean death to all who support you or life for your enemy. All my friends in the African Diaspora were sons of people who lost elections, they lost jobs, land, houses, citizenship, all via the ballot. In Rwanda, this game is even more deadly. The specter of tribal politics and mass-slaughter still haunts us, and Burundi serves as a lesson to us. The West convinced the previous government to hand over power to a tribal party that is now preparing to kill them. When you have France supporting genocidal rebel movements just over the border, you cannot foster democracy at home. It makes our democracy a Game of Death. So my favourite expression is the one above, when we make losing a mortal sin, when losing power means losing your life, cheating becomes necessary to save your life. So what the West complains about and calls cheating is actually seen as essential, the West is also cheating by supporting Genocidal politics, then calls foul when we bend the rules to us. The idea of holding development hostage to democracy is fatal, the main precursor to civil breakdown is always economic, the crashing of the Rwanda economy in 1990 was crucial in the horrific events that followed. So inducing economic crisis does not correlate with democracy, it just makes it worse. The EU will try to cut aid, but its influence is vastly reduced, Brexit, the Euro crisis, Trump’s indifference, the rise of China, have all reduced its role. It no longer has united voice, or maybe it has bigger problems.

long road

The long road

The mistakes the West made in trying to “Democratize” Africa were numerous. Firstly, thinking democracy can be universally defined with a template. Secondly, was the mistaken idea that this democracy template can be parachuted down without grassroots support of Africans. Thirdly, to link Aid to democracy, people in need are people in need, regardless of the errors of their government. Lastly, it failed to deal fully with the global economic system that keeps these countries poor and props up these dictatorships, armed groups, and tribal parties. For Africans, we believed that Democracy can solve all our problems without hard work. Democracy is the road, not the car, it is a hard trek. We need to democratize our parties, let our parties be Guardians of Democracy, we tried to democratize nations, but not the parties. Nyerere left a Democratic party in CCM, a rule of succession – a Christian mainlander, then a Muslim Coastal person. So if a president is one, then the VP is the other, the VP often gets picked for President after learning on the job. That might be the solution for Rwanda, of course we do not acknowledge tribes but it could resolve problems in the future. Knowing that someone is coming after you and can undo any negative legislation, you develop a long term consensus of mutual protection and not competition. This kind of handover requires a Nyerere to oversee at least 2 transitions. When Nyerere was dying in 1999, they asked him if he was worried about his country. He laughed “Not at all, it will continue on schedule, I set it for 100 years. When the time comes, they will know what to do.”


Go thee well Rwanda


Let’s start this process again

Democracy is the road and not the car. We were told these democratic vehicles or institutions would drive us to develop, but we find no road. We have to make the road ourselves, otherwise we just get stuck in the bush. It’s a long road ahead.

Rama Isibo

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3 Responses to Democracy is the road, not the car

  1. Peter says:

    Hello Isibo, i am a great fun of your blogs. I was wondering where the older ones are. Could you please re post them.
    Thank you.

  2. Serupyipyinyur'impyisi Mbur'undeba Wa Mbur'umbonye says:

    Democracy, in my unwavering view and as I have said before and maintain, is the problem and the greatest threat in Africa; particularly the western kind of democracy and our misconceptions, if not complete misunderstanding of it and its dynamics.

    What is democratic about people literally imposing their own will on you; saying to you, you either got to have and/or this or that, lest you suffer the wrath of our mighty?

    I have often argued that Africa’s major problems and major threats, despite the pretensions; a) the so called “educated” african(s) and; b) democracy, that is to say, the western model of democracy; the kind that requires that africans elect their own dictator and oppressor but the West’s poster boy/girl, the West’s extended arm of imperialism – you combine the two and you have a lethal weapon, you literally have a rope with which africans are happy and willing to hang themselves to death with in a mistaken or false belief that they are fighting a just cause by using one to demand for the other and feel they are a better people.

    The other problem of course, borne out of the european colonial indoctrination so called “education” in Africa, and having taken on other people’s value system, is that we have accepted and such, use and apply, quite foolishly of course – other people’s definitions of the concepts we use and/or definitions of us – to define and/or talk about ourselves and then we get into a frenzy of rage and throw all kinds of reactionary childish tantrums when they talk/speak about us as they’ve chosen to define us.

  3. Anne J. Kajuga says:

    What a great read..some facts challenging and disheartening but definitely food for thought!
    I like the quote I just cut and pasted “None of the other leaders were as inspiring as Kagame, all had fatal flaws, so the writing was on the wall even back then. Watch out when you hear “never change a winning team” or if you do, for it is a sign of things to come. The RPF needs new blood, new ideas, new methodologies, or it risks becoming complacent like other once all-powerful parties. The greatest hero of our president is Julius Nyerere, a true statesman of Africa, he understood that the objective was not to rule till he died but to oversee subsequent leaders. He oversaw two successive presidencies before he died, he famously intervened to stop Jakaya Kikwete in 1995 “Kijana, kaa chini” sit down boy! If Nyerere ruled till he died then TZ would be like Zaire after Mobutu.”…I lived 4 years in Nyerere socialism and those were the best years of my Africa without tribalism even though without TV!

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