Mwenda’s central thesis is that African democracy is too often more procedural than substantive. He argues that, because democracy is poorly understood to mean elections and ethnic-based power sharing; it narrowly becomes an elite preoccupation with little corresponding returns for the impoverished masses.
I have to contend that Mwenda’s critique of African democracy makes logical sense. Democracy is of no value if the majority of people on the continent continue to languish in painful poverty. However, it is his faithful praise and totally uncritical support for the Rwanda dictatorial system that reduces him to nothing more than a propaganda spewing parrot.
Dutch-American blogger, Vincent Harris, has written an excellent critique of Mwenda’s piece on his informative blog, colouredopinions. He argues that, “[Andrew Mwenda] ignores the global context of the Rwanda genocide and the South African end of apartheid.” In other words, unlike South Africa, Rwanda has been given leeway to run the country without the slightest respect for democracy. We all know that capitalist dictatorships such as China tend to register very high economic growth. Therefore, economic growth alone cannot be the sole factor for comparing the two countries.
I think Mwenda has a tendency to exaggerate Rwanda’s growth. The statistic he gives bears little meaning. Consider this statement: “Thus, unlike South Africa, Rwanda’s economic and social indicators for the most ordinary people show a continuous growth curve in social and economic wellbeing: increasing household incomes, better housing, 97 percent primary school enrolment, 92 percent of the people on medical insurance, 75 percent access to clean water; 97 percent of pregnant women attending antenatal care, infant and maternal mortality are all going down etc.” Even if we are to believe that these statistics are correct, do they reflect quality? After all, isn’t Mwenda’s entire article based on the lack of quality when it comes to African democracy?
For instance, the 92% health care coverage is based on a scheme called “mutuelle de santé”. Peasants are required to contribute about $2 a year. However, Rwandan hospitals are in a sad state for the lack of good equipment and trained professionals. Just several weeks ago, the leading hospital, King Faisal was refusing to accept patients on mutelle de santé. Meaning: they have no choice but to die. It is common for wealthy Rwandan patients to fly to South Africa for even minor treatments. A Nairobi based dentist recently told me that, most of the top Rwandan military officials flock his office for treatment.
A week ago when I was in East Africa, the top news on the streets was about young unemployed youths trying to sneak into South Africa for a better life. A friend who was in Cape Town not long ago, told me that he was surprised (in a good way) by the high number of Rwandan taxi drivers there. In Uganda, I met immigrant Rwandan men who were working factory jobs trying to raise their fare to South Africa. How many South Africans are saving money to move to Rwanda?
I still do believe that the single most important indicator of how an economy is doing is by the number of immigrants seeking to move in. The easiest way to measure the stability of a country is by the number of refugees (both political and economic) moving out. Rwanda does not do well on these two counts. Each month, thousands of individuals try to leave through Uganda, Tanzania and the DRC. In fact, if it weren’t for Rwanda’s aggressive repatriation policy, including forceful repatriation of refugees, the country would be almost empty. The reason is simply, whether there is economic growth or not, few people want to live in a country that has no respect for fundamental freedoms.
What Mwenda fails to understand is that, a development oriented totalitarian regime is not the better alternative to ineffective democracy. When a system is devoid of any respect for human rights, there are serious questions on sustainability. A good example for this is Ivory Coast. During the early 1990s the country was touted as a model for African development. But the economic growth was based on pure dictatorships. It did not take long for the country to breakdown into chaos. Today, Ivory Coast is still trying, in the midst of so much pain, to retrace the path of democracy. Rwanda under Habyarimana was seen in a similar light.
Another problem that Mwenda fails to appreciate is the seriousness of an ethnic based hegemonic battle. It is not okay for Hutu people, the majority in Rwanda, to be sidelined from all positions of power. The apartheid South African regime might have been more successful at developing the economy (this is debatable), but it did not stop the disenfranchised South Africans from fighting back. In Northern Ireland, two opposing groups fight, not necessarily because of the economy, but for identity reasons. The same is true for much of the Balkans.
Mwenda’s thesis therefore lacks any useful insight for a modern African society. His ideas, if implemented will sow the seeds for the next wars and genocides. Yes, we ought to pressure infant democracies in Africa to give corresponding economic results. We need to emphasize that democracy is more than elections. However, this cannot (and shouldn’t) be done, by giving praise to rogue regimes like that of Rwanda.