Rwandans go to the polls on August 9th. There are no prizes for guessing who the winner will be. President Paul Kagame, who is credited by most to have ended the Rwandan genocide in 1994, has recently had to resort to his darker tendencies to continue his stay in power, even as he walks the tight rope of political liberalization. Given the instability that the whole process has created in the country (grenade attacks in Kigali, murder of opposition leaders, attempted assassinations in foreign lands, ever rising ethnic tension etc etc) one wonders whether Mr. Kagame should stop trying to have his cake and eat it.
Political liberalization means being willing to give up power. But it is obvious that Mr. Kagame is not ready for this. Instead he wants it both ways – by holding sham elections to keep the liberal international community happy and singing his praises while he continues to muzzle the Rwandan domestic democratization movement. He may yet succeed at this, or in the more likely scenario go the way of the proverbial man who tried to ride two donkeys at the same time.
As Bratton and van de Walle have pointed out, “Liberalized authoritarianism…. is an unstable form of regime. Its political openings are easily and summarily shut as strongmen place ever heavier reliance on a shrinking circle of military loyalists. In the worst-case scenarios, blocked or precluded transitions lead to an intensification of political conflict, to anarchy (a regime without rules of any kind) and to the implosion of the authority of the state.”
President Kagame came to power in 1994 after leading the rebel Rwandan Patriotic Front in the conquest of Kigali. Since then he has had a largely positive role in an attempt to heal Rwandan wounds and spur economic development. But 15 years is a long time and it is increasingly becoming clear that Mr. Kagame has overstayed his welcome in State House, Kigali. Like Uganda’s Museveni, Ethiopia’s Zenawi, and other Continental autocrats, he seems convinced that he is an irreplaceable God’s gift to Rwanda. Someone needs to disabuse him of this belief.