Historian Daniel Magaziner On Paul Kagame’s Visit to Yale

As some of you may know, Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame was recently invited to speak at Yale. As expected, a lot of people expressed their outrage, citing Kagame’s deplorable human rights record. One of those present at the talk was Daniel Magaziner, an Associate Professor of History at Yale.

….. I’m only interested in relating what I heard when Mr. Kagame came to Yale. But as a historian, I do have to note that Mr. Kagame’s message sounded awfully familiar. Were Mr. Netanyahu to come to campus, I imagine that he would said something quite similar. We have suffered, we have been wronged. #MindYourOwnBusiness. And here’s the thing: that’s the same message Mr. Verwoerd would have brought to Yale, had we invited him. We have suffered, you have not, you have no standing, #MindYourOwnBusiness. I note this not to say that these men are one and the same. That would be ridiculous. But Verwoerd drew from the well of past suffering to foreshorten history to shut down critiques of reprehensible policies. Benjamin Netanyahu has made an art form of doing the same. And today I heard Paul Kagame charmingly remind an audience of privileged Ivy Leaguers and Americans that their ivory towers are glass houses, and thus that we cannot know the truth, and that we should mind our own business.

Paul Kagame came to my campus today. I did not condemn my university for inviting him and I did not boycott him. Instead I shook his hand and I smiled at him and I thanked him for sharing his thoughts with us. Because I needed to hear him to confirm what, as a historian, I have long suspected – we’ve seen his kind before. And, apologies Mr. Kagame, but you know that – because you correctly condemn my country for minding its own business in April, May and June 1994. People like you are our business precisely because people who tell others to mind their own business tend to be the sorts of people who leave bodies in their wake. And bodies and human suffering are the cursed currency of history, as Paul Kagame’s Rwanda has taught and regrettably continues to teach.

For more read the whole thing at Africa is a Country.

Each April the world gets treated to think pieces weighing the prospects of Rwanda’s impressive recovery since the 1994 genocide. On balance, the ratings have generally tended to be positive.

However, ever since Kagame made it clear that he would hang on to power beyond 2017, the balance has tilted towards a more pessimistic view. This is because most Rwanda watchers know that without an enduring and stable political settlement, all the achievements of the last two decades can come tumbling down in a flash.

What most observers fail to fully appreciate (including yours truly) is that a leadership transition in Rwanda, especially if marked by a sharp discontinuity in the top brass, would be severely destabilizing.

The next question then is when is the optimal time to risk it all? Should Rwanda change its leadership now when the losses arising from instability would be relatively smaller; or should it wait for Kagame’s natural life to run its course when the losses may be bigger?

Should we be comforted by the fact that perhaps by then the logic of “too much to lose” may kick in, forcing elites to arrive at a stable political settlement without costly losses of life and property?

Will Kagame turn into Seretse Khama, Leopold Senghor, or Julius Nyerere? Or will he become a Museveni? Or even a Mugabe?

I honestly do not know the answers to these questions.

What I do know, though, is that the contemporary autocratic regimes in Rwanda and Ethiopia are qualitatively different from the incorrigibly ineffectual tin pot dictatorships of the 1970s and 1980s.

Of course I am open to the possibility that my views are motivated by a need for model non-democratic governments in a region that is increasingly hostile to open electoral democracy. As the leader of the opposition in Ethiopia once told me, sometimes it is hard to argue against electricity and roads.

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Is Brexit good or bad for Africa?

Writing in Foreign Policy, Alex de Waal is certain that Brexit is terrible for African countries, and that “[e]verything from the economy to peacekeeping missions will suffer.”

The damage to British interests is significant, but the losses for [African countries] could be greater still. In campaigning to leave the European Union, Minister for Africa James Duddridge argued that Britain would be able to forge stronger ties with the continent if it were unencumbered by EU inefficiencies in aid and trade. Perhaps if Duddridge had a blank slate on which to construct a new Africa policy, he could do better than Britain’s existing one, which is part bilateral and part multilateral through the EU.farage But no policy is ever built on a blank slate, and surveying the post-Brexit political wreckage, he is now faced with a salvage job that will involve decoupling Britain from numerous EU-led peace and development initiatives and renegotiating dozens of trade deals. Even deftly managed by Duddridge or his successor, the Brexit will leave Britain with a fraction of the influence it currently wields in Africa.

And over at Africa is a Country Grive Chelwa notes that:

The one obvious channel through which Brexit could affect economies in Africa is if it triggers a recession in the UK. A recession might affect trade and investment between the two regions. The Bank of England thinks a recession might very well be on the cards. A study reviewing all studies that have estimated the likely economic impact of Brexit found: “GDP losses for the UK in the range of 10% or more [could not] be ruled out in the long run.”

How much trade takes place between the UK and Africa? Not much, it turns out. Combining data from the UK’s Office for National Statistics (ONS) and the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) for 2014, the latest year for which we have comparable data, we calculated that exports from Africa to the UK represent about 5% of Africa’s total exports. Africa is more worried about a slowdown in China, its biggest trading partner by far.

…. The UK doesn’t have the same influence on the continent that it did decades ago. And Brexit will be further proof of that. If the UK sneezes Africa will … well Africa will say “bless you” and move on.

On balance, I agree with Chelwa. It appears that with regard to the UK-Africa relationship, the Brits stand to lose more than Africa as a unit following Brexit. This is for the following reasons:

  1. Lacking the amplifying effects of the EU, UK influence in Africa will be diminished. This is bad for the UK, but not necessarily so for African states. Notice that the UK’s security objectives in Somalia or elsewhere on the Continent have not suddenly changed following the Brexit vote. We should disabuse ourselves of the notion that the UK involvement in these theatres of conflict is out of pure benevolence. It is largely to protect British interests (tourists, MNCs, aid workers, other tied aid, etc). Those interests have not suddenly changed with Brexit. Is a post-Brexit UK better off with a stable Somalia? I think so. Viewed this way, what Brexit has done is not to change British interests in Africa but to increase the UK’s transaction costs in catering to those interests. The Brits may invest less in specific peacekeeping operations, but their self-interest dictates that they will not suddenly close the taps on these investments.
  2. A diminished UK diminishes Europe, which may reduce Europe’s leverage vis-a-vis African countries. This outcome could cut both ways. On the one hand, it may exacerbate the moral hazard problem faced by African leaders by allowing them to play different European powers off each other (why invest in good governance if Europe is always at the ready to help if things go south?) But on the other hand, a weaker Europe may be less willing to bail out African leaders all the time. This might force these leaders to take their jobs seriously, thereby improving the welfare of their citizens. 
  3. It is not clear that decoupling UK aid from the rest of Europe will necessarily lead to the UK cutting its aid budget. In fact, the opposite might prove true. Going its own way may force the UK to put more aid pounds into projects in the region than it currently does under a joint EU aid budget. Again, increased transaction costs may mean the UK spending more money than it currently does in Africa, which is good for African economies. Plus the UK is likely to find itself needing to make up for the lost amplifying effects of the EU with more aid pounds.
  4. A recession in the UK may prove contagious. This would be bad for the world economy, and Africa would not be an exception. That said, I don’t think economic turbulence in Africa would necessarily lead to the conflicts of the early 1990s. With a few glaring exceptions, most African countries would be able to withstand a global recession without collapsing. We saw this during the Great Recession.
  5. The world is learning a lot about democracy by observing the challenges it currently faces in the West. Suddenly, corrosive ethnic politics is not exclusive to poor countries. “Leaders” like Donald J. Trump and Boris Johnson are not things that only happen in Zimbabwe or Nicaragua. These data points will serve to demystify democracy as a system of governance, and refocus global attention on what really makes democracy work — a stable intra-elite consensus coupled with reasonably sufficient responsiveness to the electorate (down with the fetishization of elections!!!) This will be a valuable lesson for Africa and other developing regions of the world. The ongoing sociopolitical troubles in the West are bound to liberate the worldview of leaders and other elites in the Global South, and will empower them to mold their own societies in their own image, instead of trying to turn them into Denmarks. The often-misrepresented “European mystique” has lost its shine. And this is a good thing for the world.

This is not to say that Africa’s economies will be able to weather Brexit without any non-trivial hiccups. South Africa, Nigeria, and Kenya are probably the most exposed (in that order). Other African economies will be exposed to the extent that economic troubles in the UK lead to a global recession (the gold exporters might even benefit…)

And Western security policies and support for missions in Somalia and across the Sahel may face short-term uncertainties. But these experiences will not necessarily be catastrophic (on the security front, America will most likely steady the ship).

In fact, I tend to think that the long-run impact of these experiences will be positive. English speaking African economies will have incentives to diversify their export destinations away from the UK. African countries will have more leverage vis-a-vis the UK and (a fractured) Europe (and the US). And the lessons from the political upheavals in the West will serve to liberate Global South elites to mold their own societies in their own image and in a manner that respects sociopolitical realities in their specific contexts.

Some Africanist inside baseball

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Do African leaders have a voice?

That is the question asked by Africa Is A Country:

These days, well-behaved African heads of state are rewarded by Barack Obama with the chance to meet with him in groups of four and have their picture taken with him. It’s like meeting Beyonce, but you get to call it a state visit. That’s what happened on Friday when Malawi’s Joyce Banda, Senegal’s Macky Sall, Cape Verde’s José Maria Neves and Sierra Leone’s Ernest Bai Koroma were paraded before the White House press corps, sitting in star-struck silence as Barack reeled off a kind of wikipedia-level roll-call of their accomplishments. They beamed like competition winners. It was all very feudal.

….. The East African called it as they saw it: “The meeting was to reward them for their support for US interests in Africa.” Though some others wanted to be there. In Uganda, some sites were wringing their hands over why Museveni hadn’t been invited.

The post raises an important question especially with regard to the recent rise in African assertiveness. Most of this has been restricted to elite circles with regard to the ICC and general Western meddling presence on the continent. 

Among the many posts I hope to write soon – the dissertation and life permitting – is one on African IR (yes, African International Relations). For a very long time the Continent has engaged the world in disaggregated terms – mostly as a result of individual weakness. But recently some countries have realized their power (For instance Uganda and Kenya in their military and diplomatic usefulness, respectively) and are more than willing to exercise those powers. The realization of individual power has also catalyzed a tendency to use the regional bloc – the AU – as a leverage in wider international engagements (I expect Kenya’s president-elect Uhuru Kenyatta to use the AU a lot in dealing with the charges he faces at the ICC). 

And among the African elite I expect a new sense of self-confidence, with calls like these to become louder and more common. Whether the Western governments (and regular Western Africa watchers) will adapt fast enough or be caught flat-footed is still unclear, especially after the ill-considered and tactless obvious attempt to influence the outcome of the Kenyan election. Also worth considering is whether this new-found African assertiveness will result in actual progress and attempts at catching up with the developed world or turn out to be a mere echo of the empty rhetoric of African pride – a la Zaireanization – that was championed by a kleptocratic navel-gazing African elite of decades past.