The AU should insist on democratic principles the way ECOWAS does

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by Hans Dembowski

Why I feel ambivalent about Kagame’s AU chairmanship

Rwandan President Paul Kagame is the African Union’s new chairman. Newspaper commentators have appreciated the fact that he was chosen. At first, I agreed with them, but now I’m having second thoughts.

Dominic Johnson, whose in-depth understanding of African affairs I appreciate, declared Kagame to be the right person for the job in a comment in taz, a centre-left newspaper published in Berlin. Johnson argues that, in order to become effective, the AU needs the strong kind of leadership that Kagame can provide. Moreover, Johnson notes that Kagame is aware of the huge challenges the continent is facing, including population growth, unemployment and climate change, for example.

Johnson’s assessment makes sense, but I nonetheless feel ambivalent about praising Rwanda’s head of state. In my opinion, Jennifer Ofori-Boateng went too far in her comment for the Accra-based Daily Graphic. For good reason, she applauds Kagame’s achievements in running a comparatively corruption-free administration and reducing poverty in a country traumatised by the genocidal turmoil of 1994. However, I fundamentally disagree with the following paragraph:

“To his credit, President Kagame has, since he took over after the genocide in his country, provided the leadership that has made it possible for widows, orphans, killers and survivors to find the heart to forgive, recover and rebuild the amazing Rwanda we see today.”

The truth is that, under Kagame’s authoritarian rule, there are public rituals of remembrance, but differences between Hutus and Tutsis may not be mentioned. He  insists that the distinction, which led to such terrible bloodshed, no longer exists. If people are not free to share their experiences, define their identities and express their views on such sensitive matters, a nation cannot come to terms with its history. Reconciliation depends on mutual understanding, not on keeping silent. While Rwanda has indeed made impressive socio-economic progress under Kagame, it remains to be seen whether he has achieved lasting peace and how things will develop once he leaves office.

Ofori-Boateng reports that she visited Rwanda in 2015, and “everywhere” she went, she felt as if she were in a “police state”. A local colleague, however, told her that the strong presence of security forces was something that would soon be over and was only needed temporarily to ensure there were no disruptions.

It is naïve to accept such apologetic statements as valid. She should have checked out what Human Rights Watch says about Rwanda. The freedom of expression is restricted, and dissident journalists are harassed. People are detained unlawfully and some are tortured. In my experience, even Rwandans who live in exile in Germany are afraid of Kagame’s spies and shy away from publicly criticising his government. Yes, Rwanda is known to be a police state.

The AU certainly needs more stringent administration. It is absurd that it covered up for many months that its offices were wiretapped by China. China had built the new AU headquarters. No doubt, an international organisation must shield itself better. An efficient administrator like Kagame may make the difference.

The problem is that the AU must handle other issues as well. It would be wonderful if it enforced democratic principles the way the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) does in its region. A man with Kagame’s authoritarian tendencies is unlikely to promote this cause. Indeed, he set a bad example by insisting on constitutional changes to allow him yet another term in office. He then won the presidential election with almost 98 % of the vote. Such figures are typical of dictatorships and implausible in a democracy.

It is equally worrisome that Rwanda has a long history of supporting militant groups in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Under Kagame’s leadership, the AU may thus not be a credible arbiter in Rwanda’s crisis-prone neighbouring country. It was supposed to hold elections last year, but they were postponed to December 2018, and there is no guarantee they will actually take place. Christoph Vogel recently assessed the volatile scenario on our website. The tensions are getting worse, violence is flaring up in the Ituri region, and, in view of Rwandan interests in the DRC, a Kagame-led AU is unlikely to help solve the problems.

I agree that the Rwandan strongman deserves praise for developing his country. He is not the kind of dictator who exploits his nation and enriches himself and his cronies. Nonetheless, he has proven to be a ruthless leader who is determined to stay in power at any cost. That attitude is harmful. Nonetheless, I hope his chairmanship will prove useful, for instance if he speeds up the AU’s Continental Free Trade Area. Africa definitely needs more intra-African trade.


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