Why “The Will of the People” is a Terrible Reason to Stay in Power

An interesting report on Quartz Africa on Paul Kagame's reasoning to run for a third term as President of Rwanda:

His answer to the pointed question, “Why pursue a third term,” asked on panel by former UK prime minister Tony Blair?


Speaking on stage at the World Economic Forum on Africa, which Rwanda is hosting for the first time, with Blair on one side and investor/philanthropist Howard Buffett on the other, Kagame said in deciding to run for a third seven-year term in 2017 and extend his presidency, he was simply respecting the wishes of the Rwandan people.

“I didn’t ask for this thing,” he said, adding that there had been a very healthy debate within his party and with ordinary citizens about whether he should continue on as president. “I’ve told Rwandans it’s not just not what you think of for yourselves, but what others think of us.” Kagame has been president since 2000.

“I said, maybe you need to take a risk with someone else,” Kagame said, suggesting they pick someone from the ruling party RPF or elsewhere. “But they kept saying no, we want you to stay.”

There are some obvious problems with Kagame's argumentation, if you look at the reality of Rwanda's politics. While it is true that there was "a very healthy debate" and a referendum, Rwanda simply has no space for dissenting opinions. Opposition politicians have been murdered, an independent press is nonexistent and dissidents have even been intimidated and attacked abroad. So in the best case, Kagame doesn't know if his renewed candidature really reflects the will of the people. In the worst case he knows it doesn't and he has worked to actively suppress this will.

But that is beside the larger point I want to make.

"People" want a lot of things. And in many, if not most cases, politicians should respect these wants and work to fulfill them as best as possible. But the reason we even have politicians in a democracy (and don't rely purely on direct votes) is that sometimes we want them to do something unpopular.

Accepting refugees is, for example, hugely unpopular in Europe right now, but it still remains the right and sensible thing to do. Not only for moral reasons, but also because there are very good long-term arguments to do so. "The tyranny of the majority" is a real thing and it can be created and misused against the interests of the very people that are part of it.

Kagame has been in power in Rwanda in one form or another since 1994. He is without a doubt an outstanding military commander and politician. But after more than 20 years of almost complete control over the Rwandan state, one of the highest per capita recipients of foreign aid, what does he still have to contribute except for himself?

There is simply little reason to assume that he will be able to realize any of his remaining political priorities if he hasn't done so already over the last two decades. But that isn't even the argument of his supporters. They say that Kagame himself is essential to the success of the Rwandan project:

“If I didn’t think president Kagame was going to be here for another seven years, we wouldn’t even consider doing some of the things we’re trying to do,” Buffett said to audience applause.

The obvious problem: Kagame is human and will inevitably die sooner or later. And more likely than not his mental and physical capacities will significantly deteriorate significantly earlier. That point may still be far into the future, maybe even more than the seven years of Kagame's third term. But it could also be tomorrow. Or in six months.

If Kagame is the sensible and outstanding politician that his supporters have declared him to be, he would have recognized this. He would have devoted a significant share of his time and effort to establish institutions and mentor individuals that can take over from him. Maybe no single person can replace Kagame, but he had two decades to nurture a system that can.

Of course he didn't and there is little reason to assume that he will do so over the next seven years. He has said nothing to that end in public and the question of succession hasn't figured in the "healthy public debate" that precipitated his anointment as Rwanda's patron saint. Kagame has certainly avoided the more ridiculous aspects of a personality cult à la Gaddafi or Idi Amin. But by clinging to power he makes the same fundamental mistake of equating his own continued leadership with the welfare of his nation.

This is of course not only a Rwandan, nor even an exclusively African problem. Angela Merkel is on her way to a fourth four year term in Germany. Russia's Putin has proven to be a real innovator when it comes to working the system to stay in power (also citing popular demand, by the way). And one or two term limits are no guarantee for the good stewardship of a country, either.

But specifically in the case of Rwanda, Kagame's renewed candidature is the tacit acknowledgment that he has failed at creating the stable and tolerant post-genocide society that the Rwandan government claims exist. By his own and other people's admission, Kagame remains the lynchpin of the state. Statements like that of Warren Buffet above show that neither the Rwandan elite, nor their foreign partners have any confidence in the durability of his legacy. And until today, nobody has offered a plan to change this deplorable status quo. Least of all Kagame himself.

The Grand Migration Bargain Begins

European governments don't want to have any pesky migrants crossing the Mediterranean? Niger says it can arrange that, for a cool € 1 billion no less. That is the amount the Niger government told a delegation of E.U. foreign ministers it needs to curb the flow of illegal migrants through its territory. With Nigeria to the South and Libya to the North, Niger is currently an important stepping stone for African migrants who hope to reach Europe by sea.

Niger's government has been emboldened by the € 3 billion migration deal between the E.U. and Turkey, which was negotiated back in March. E.U. member states, it seems, are willing to pay virtually unlimited amounts of money to stop migrants from crossing into E.U. territory.

With up to 150.000 migrants estimated to pass through Niger per year, the E.U. will essentially be paying about € 6.600 per individual to Niger's government alone (assuming it agrees to Niger's demands). Talks are underway with authorities in Libya as well and several other African countries are already recipients of large sums related to migration control.

We are fast approaching the point where the E.U. could pay all migrants a sum equivalent to the average yearly income of some of the poorer E.U. member states. Or cover several months worth of health and unemployment insurance.

Given that migrants are a net economic positive for the receiving societies, paying vast amounts of money to keep them out obviously makes no sense at all. Instead, European governments are too cowardly (vis-à-vis racist and outspoken opposition on the streets) to take the necessary steps to implement a functioning path to legal migration, or are opposed to it on ideological grounds.

Europe of course is by and large a rich place and will be able to shoulder this "idiocy tax" one way or the other. The real damage is done in Africa (and Turkey), where repressive and malfunctioning regimes are legitimized by these kinds of bargains. To put matters into perspective: Niger's most recent public yearly military expenditure (2012) was $73.1 million. It's revised 2015 budget was $2.9 billion. If the E.U. pays even a fraction of the €1 billion per year, especially when designated for border protection and the combat of criminal people smugglers, tasks usually reserved for the security forces, it will essentially guarantee Niger's government financial and diplomatic immunity from any challenges domestic political opposition could pose to its power.

It’s a Good Time to Be a Dictator Again

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There was a brief period of time when it looked like openly fraternizing with authoritarian rulers might go out of style, especially in Africa.

The Cold War’s end suddenly obviated the West’s need to prop up local allies — and Russia simply didn’t have the means anymore to do the same thing. The brutal civil wars of the 1990s and 2000s brought the deadly consequences of dictatorship to the fore, and a new crop of African rulers promised to usher in multi-party democracy.

In stark contrast to the situation in the Middle East, most African countries weren’t strategically significant. To top it all off, the Arab Spring discredited Western foreign policy in North Africa — specifically, the hemisphere’s dealings with the likes of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt.

Western governments promised to have seen the error of their ways and solemnly swore to really push for democracy in Africa, and without foul compromises this time around.

Well, those feelings were short-lived. With right-wing populists breathing down the necks of European governments due to the migrant crisis and defense companies in dire need of sales after the financial crisis massacred Western defense budgets, any autocrat who has something to offer is back in the game.

Read the rest on War is Boring!

Trevor Noah on the Nkandla Scandal

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Vera Songwe on family dynasties in Africa

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Interesting analysis:

The automatic succession of sons does not seem to be the norm. There have been over 38 cases on the continent where the leader passed away in office, and sons have succeeded their fathers in only three. Over the last two years there have, however, been two contested elections that involved the son and brother of a former president—Kenyatta in 2013 and Mutharika in 2014. Increasingly, countries have put in place constitutional provisions to handle the passing of the president or are respecting constitutional provisions from earlier constitutions such as in Nigeria, Ghana, Zambia, and Ethiopia, all countries who have seen their presidents pass away and whose transitions have been handled in a smooth and constitutional way. It seems that the passing of presidents has not generated prolonged political instability on the continent.

Her recommendations are sensible:

However, to guard against the creation of birth-right dynasties as opposed to merit-based family political dynasties, recent events suggest that countries should and must have clear constitutional processes for succession as well as open transparent freely contested elections.

Source: From father to son: Africa's leadership transitions and lessons | Brookings Institution

Constitutional court confirms Gnassingbé’s reelection in Togo

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Le président togolais sortant Faure Gnassingbé a remporté l'élection du 25 avril par 58,77% des suffrages exprimés, contre 35,19% à son principal adversaire Jean-Pierre Fabre, selon les résultats officiels proclamés dimanche par la Cour constitutionnelle.

Faure Gnassingbé is the second member of his family, after his father, to occupy the Togolese presidency. Together, father and son have ruled the small West African nation for almost 50 years.

The opposition has cried foul over the conduct of the election but declined to challenge the results in court. Just like in many other countries, the real problem is not outright fraud, but a system of power that greatly favors the incumbent. It is a shame that this is not subject to more scrutiny and attention from the African Union, western governments and the international community at large.

Source: Togo : la Cour constitutionnelle confirme la victoire de Faure Gnassingbé | Jeuneafrique.com

Ethiopia’s election is coming up

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And Africa is a Country gives a good roundup of the issues at stake:

This year’s election comes at a crucial juncture for the Horn of Africa nation of 94 million people. Touting the country’s improved economic fortunes, the ruling party is all but certain to continue with its “winning” streak. To the party’s credit, once a country with extreme famine, poverty and underdevelopment and a subject of Bob Geldof’s live-aid concerts, under EPRDF’s rule Ethiopia has seen relative economic gains and improved access to basic education and basic health care in rural areas.


This is however an incomplete, not to mention a clichéd, picture of Ethiopia. Even if one acknowledges modest economic gains, the beneficiaries have not crossed the narrow circle of the well-connected upper business class and associates of the ruling party. Beneath the headlines about massive investment in infrastructure and mega hydroelectric dams financed by the government and rosy forecasts by multinational financial institutions lies a burgeoning and increasingly repressive police state.

That’s not all. Unemployment among urban youth hovers above 50 percent. In a country where 60 percent of the population is aged 30 and below, it is no wonder that the regime is intolerant of any form of dissent, imprisoning journalists and bloggers, including for comments on social media. One of the top ten worst jailers of journalists in the world, along with China, Iran and North Korea, Ethiopia has locked up, forced into exile, or cowed nearly all of the country’s independent journalists into silence using a sweeping anti-terrorism law widely being used to muzzle the press.

Ethiopia is one of the most fascinating countries on the continent. I have no doubt that the ruling party will dominate the elections. The question is not if, but how and under what circumstances the EPRDF wins.

Source: What’s at stake when Ethiopians vote next month? | Africa is a Country

Think Africa Press: How Much Longer Can Compaoré Rule Last?

On October 15, President Blaise Compaoré of Burkina Faso will celebrate his 25th year in power. To spend that much time in office, he had to run coups against two governments. In the first in 1983, he helped his friend and fellow revolutionary Thomas Sankara become president. In the second, four years later, Compaoré took power. Sankara was killed and Compaoré lost all appetite for socialism. He put in place a system of power so exploitative that 25 years later Burkina Faso remains one of the least developed countries in the world.

During this time, Compaoré has expertly managed to keep local elites and international donors happy, and marginalise all political opposition in Burkina Faso. It attests to his political prowess that he has had a hand in virtually all civil wars in the region, from Sierra Leone to Ivory Coast and Mali, but has been able to keep an exceptionally low profile internationally, avoiding criticism from western donors and NGOs. […]

Read the rest on Think Africa Press!

African Arguments: Blaise Compaoré And The Politics Of Personal Enrichment

I'm extremely happy to have a piece about Burkina Faso/Blaise Compaoré published on the excellent African Arguments blog of the Royal African Society today. The article developed from this earlier rant and develops some arguments further.

By African standards, Burkina Faso is not a particularly spectacular country. It is small, has a tiny population and internal politics which most foreign correspondents tend to find somewhat pedestrian. No wonder that it receives only little attention, even in Africa-focused publications.

In those rare cases when something is published on the internal politics of Burkina, it often only scratches the surface and conveys a deceiving image of the country and its primary actors. […]

Read the rest on African Arguments!

World Politics Review: In Ethiopia, Post-Zenawi Void Could Create Opening for Reform

My latest piece over at World Politics Review on the continuing absence of Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi:

For 20 years, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has been the undisputed ruler of Ethiopia. Zenawi was the leader of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which in concert with its sister rebel group from Eritrea toppled the Moscow-aligned dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam in 1991. He led his country in the 1998-2000 war against his former Eritrean allies and oversaw multiple Ethiopian military interventions into neighboring Somalia. An active and outspoken leader, Zenawi is also credited with a pragmatic approach to economic development despite his Marxist roots, resulting in an average of 9 percent GDP growth over the past 10 years.

Now the strong man of the Horn of Africa has disappeared -- literally: For almost two months, Zenawi has not appeared in public. Nor has he given any interviews and or any other indication that he is still alive, despite a high-profile summit of the African Union currently taking place in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa.

The country’s ruling coalition, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), has confirmed that medical issues are the reason for Zenawi’s “leave of absence,” but insists that he is recovering well and will resume working in September. But even if he does, Zenawi’s absence is a useful reminder for the governments of Ethiopia’s neighbors and its Western allies that, for the first time in two decades, they would do well to think about a post-Zenawi Ethiopia. […]

Read the rest on World Politics Review!