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Democracy and Governance in Africa: The Case of Rwanda


A public lecture by Lonzen Rugira, PhD.

Ambassador Ralph J. Bunche International Affairs Center

Howard University

Washington DC

August 29, 2019


I wish to acknowledge my former professors in the audience. I particularly wish to recognize Prof. Sulayman Nyang who passed away last year. He was a mentor and major influence on my life personally and professionally.

Ladies and gentlemen,

My topic today is democracy and good governance in Africa: The case of Rwanda.

This is a question of political and economic management of society in Africa. It is a question of “development.”

My view is that all good governance is democracy but not all democracy is good governance. I derive this view from a troubling reality that Africa has faced and continues to face: the challenge of democracy and good governance in Africa is that few countries – if at all – have had the opportunity to operationalize these ideals.

No more than five countries out of 55 have managed to wrestle away and retain control of this sovereign right.

What distinguishes those few is that they have rejected the received wisdom of one size fits all models and have undertaken an introspective view of their societies – sometimes at great reputational cost. I shall return to this in greater length when I turn to Rwanda’s experience.

In some ways poverty has not allowed Africans to reflect deeply about their predicament. In other ways, external interference has not allowed for this reflection.

Significantly, political and economic mismanagement of Africa is often traceable to independence. The assumption is that perhaps independence was a mistake. The intention is to create doubt about the capacity of black self-rule.

However, political and economic mismanagement of Africa precedes independence: colonial rule was by definition political and economic mismanagement. It was anti democratic and anti good governance.

This recognition is important because it informs policy decisions of post colonial rule in Africa. It also affects the self-image of Africans: how people perceive themselves and what they are capable of.

The crisis of confidence and crisis of leadership in African societies is traceable to this self-image, for instance.

The early post-colonial period of the late 1950s and 1960s Africa had moments of introspection. This is why we recall with affinity the likes of Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere, Nnamdi Azikiwe, Sekou Toure, and Thomas Sankara who arrived on the political scene much later but with significance.

However, the fate of these leaders put a stop to this introspection. The times they found themselves in constrained this introspection within the contours of the command economy (for economic management) and one-party rule (for political governance). As limited as that was, it was introspection.

By the 1970s and 1980s much of this introspection had ceased. The 1980 Lagos Plan of Action is symbolic for this dimming of the light that would give way to a complete mental surrender.

The 1981 Berg Report of the World Bank signaled the surrender of economic thinking to international financial institutions, namely the World Bank and the IMF. Economic policy around Structural Adjustment Plans (SAPs) ruled the roost as the state was mandated to withdraw from the lives of the people as a condition for this outsourcing of economic thinking.

Much of the political thinking for Africa was taking place in Washington, Paris, London, Lisbon, and Moscow.

In similar manner that economic thinking was imposed on Africa, the 1990s imposed political thinking in the form of multi party politics and the democratization project. Without the social infrastructure for it, adversarial contestation gave rise to social rapture in the form of civil war in much of Africa and at times a catalyst for a complete rupture of society as was the case with the genocide in Rwanda.

By 2000, Africans were told that the problem was not that the economic and political prescriptions per se; it was the deficiency in their implementation. If only Africans had the “capacity” to implement these policy prescriptions. A capacity building industry was born around seminars and conferences.

Significantly, Africans were told that rather than the withdraw of the state from the lives of the people, a strong state was needed to avert violence and hold society together.

The state was reintroduced in the lives of the people through “good governance.” Here we are today. Democracy and good governance, we are told, are essential for political and economic management of society.

But in all this, the interference of external actors was never acknowledged. Perhaps it was the problem all along! What if Africans had not outsourced economic and political thinking, no one asked.

My view is that countries that have managed to take control of the sovereign right to operationalize democracy and good governance have performed better than those that are still dependent on the benevolent thinking of external forces.

Rwanda’s performance on democracy and good governance has been positive because it has fought for the right to operationalize the ideals in terms that are meaningful for the lives of its people.

The other countries are Tanzania, Botswana, Ethiopia, and perhaps one or two more. But Among these countries, Rwanda is the poorest on socioeconomic indicators. How has a poor country managed to stave off external interference?

The answer is lies in the circumstances the country found itself in before, during, and after the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi.

France was an active participant in the 1990-94 war. It is in the public domain that French soldiers were on the battlefront fighting along the genocidal regime against the rebel forces of the Rwanda Patriotic Army. The RPA captured French soldiers as prisoners of war and out of negotiations they were set free.

The RPA went on to defeat the French and the genocidal regime. Imagine the psychological boost – the anti-dote to the crisis of confidence and leadership – that the RPA and the RPF received from the defeat of the French. This explains much of the resentment the French have had against the RPF for the past 25 years, in addition to the self-perception of the French to being a greater super power than reality suggests.

The failure of the international community to intervene to stop the genocide build a disposition within the RPF that solutions to the most pressing challenges can only come from within. This indifference, in turn, built a resilience in the post genocide leadership. Significantly, it paved the way for broader introspection about the direction the country needed to take and gave rise to the national consultations that took place between 1998-1999. From these the legal, institutional, and policy foundation of a new Rwanda were established.

Rwanda has managed to build an organic system that is responsive to the prevailing social infrastructure. It has operationalized democracy and good governance around accountability, control of corruption, stability and predictability in public service delivery, and gradually citizen engagement in development processes.

Soul searching after the genocide doesn’t mean that genocide was good for Rwanda. However, it reinforces and underscores the idea that an introspective Africa that takes responsivity for the intellectual heavy-lifting around its most pressing challenges is essential to any form of social change.

However, the struggle for control of the sovereign right to operationalize democracy and good governance has come at great reputational cost mostly from those who seek to fill this policy space and to think on behalf of Africa.








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