In the months bridging June 2010 and November 2011 voters in three central African countries went to the polls to elect new heads of state. The plebiscites in Rwanda, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in this period were the second presidential ballots since the official end of intense civil violence in each country a few years earlier. The objective this time was to consolidate and develop a democratic process that had been heavily supported by foreign actors in the preceding years.
The results were tediously predictable. The presidential incumbents, who incidentally were also the victors (broadly speaking) of the earlier conflicts in their respective states, were all re-elected for another term. In Rwanda, the Rwandan Patriotic Front’s Paul Kagame received an endorsement from 93% of the population; in Burundi, on 28 June 2010, Pierre Nkurunziza appeared as the only candidate on the presidential ballot paper, cruising to ‘victory’ with 92% of the votes cast; and in the DRC, amid shambolic logistical management and controversial alterations to the constitution, Joseph Kabila secured his re-election. Despite transitional advisory groups; political observer missions; the largest UN peacekeeping force ever established; projects to boost trade and improve tax collection; and a major drive to open up education, the democratic foundations that were crafted out of the aforementioned crises had clearly been set in sand. Afterwards the overwhelming feeling amongst commentators was that, less consolidating gains, the veil of democracy had slipped in the Great Lakes neighbourhood, unmasking the type of system that foreign sponsors had expended tens-of-millions of dollars attempting to expunge.
Undoubtedly, elections alone are insufficient to spark development and improve lives, but they have been a central component of post-war reconstruction in the countries under question and beyond. Therefore, I want to quickly look at two related problems: one, the relationship between western governments who, on the one hand, see the democratic process as a mandatory component for states emerging form civil war, but on the other hand fail to sustain their commitment to democracy’s core principles; and two, the extent to which the 2010-11 elections added value to democracy in the Great Lakes Region (GLR).
Paul Kagame, Joseph Kabila, Pierre Nkurunziza
Looking Out For The ‘New Few’ – international society and the Great Lakes:
When Kagame, Nkurunziza and Kabila retained their grip on the reins of power under the guise of democracy, nobody was fooled. They didn’t much care that nobody was fooled because they knew that foreign actors had invested heavily just to ensure that the elections went ahead; even amidst blatant electoral irregularities, they knew that democracy in the Great Lakes was too important (or perhaps too expensive) to fail. Evidence of this can be seen by the sheer lack of contingency planning for the very likely event that the elections would fall short of even the lowest standards. In truth, for the heads of state in the countries under question, democracy is not about the traditional relationship between the elite and the public, but the way that elites deal with other elites. Of course we have seen a less subtle example of this in the GLR before, with one-party rule under Mobutu Sese Sesko, Juvenal Habyarimana, Michel Micombero. But in the end people tire of being treated this way and, if unchecked, the reason that the earlier oligarchies failed will be the same reason that democracy in the GLR fails this time. Until this frustration truly spills over however, we are left with little doubt as to who is in charge.
The saying from Roman antiquity, fiat justitia-ruat caelum – do justice and let the skies fall, resonates loudly today between the West and many regimes in central Africa. Often, and particularly in developing countries, justice becomes a victim of the ‘greater good’. This is at best highly cynical. At worst, it is implicit recognition that disempowered people in poor countries should not expect the people in rich countries who are propping up their governments to demand basic rights on their behalf. So, despite Paul Kagame’s notorious abuse of human rights, imprisonment of political rivals, censorship of the mainstream media and general disregard for the spirit of democracy, the UK, Rwanda’s largest bi-lateral donor, didn’t see fit to criticize the elections on 9 August 2010. On the contrary, Andrew Mitchell, the minister of international development at the time, insisted the Kagame should be “cut some slack”. When Kagame finally (and grudgingly) came under pressure from the UK, it was not for the abuses outlined above but for sponsoring rebel groups operating in the DRC. In response, Mr Mitchell quietly suspended aid to the country around the time of the opening ceremony for the London Olympics, at the tail-end of July 2012. He subsequently, rather promptly, and against the advice of civil servants reinstated it on 4 September - the day he left the post after a cabinet reshuffle.
Banter: Mitchell has been reluctant to criticise the Rwandan president
Further, having hit a high of £11 million in the run up to the presidential elections in 2010, the UK’s bi-lateral aid budget to Burundi is set to be cut altogether by 2016. After spending enormous quantities of cash to get the country through its second, etiolated presidential election, residual financial engagement is still being directed at the Burundian government machine despite a democratic catastrophe. Burundi remains the world’s third least developed country, so “mission accomplished” this is not. Added to this, the decision to draw down engagement in the wake of such a questionable electoral process sustains the argument that DfID’s support for democratic development is, in some countries, simply superficial – designed to facilitate the pretence of democratic values. Meanwhile, in the DRC, it was only after a lot of nervous throat-clearing that the US and the EU deigned to suggest that there may have been some “irregularities” in the Congolese elections, despite vocal protests and flurries of evidence from independent observers. Clearly, supplying logistical support is not enough and international actors must insist on better standards if they are to retain any credibility in the eyes of the people they are supposedly helping.
Democracy, But Not As We Know It:
European’s and other outsiders have not always had the impact on society and democracy in the Great Lakes Region that they intended. On a proximate level, the West’s insistence on holding presidential elections is of little value if it then fails to take a firm stance on deviations from established democratic conventions. On a more structural level, the way in which we view and engage these states can be intrinsically unhelpful. For example, the idea that a conflict of arms can be (susp)ended and that belligerents can then be decamped from the battlefield and into a national parliament with little abrasion is a delusion that fails to acknowledge, let alone address, traditional social divisions. The standardized programme of democracy in post-conflict settings has been applied in the GLR when in fact conflict is ongoing in some quarters, making universal suffrage untenable; electoral processes have merely allowed the strongest armed group to govern (often with minimal checks and balances) under the guise of democracy; and in the three cases discussed here we were presented with a set of results, between 2010-11, whose primary consequence has been to evoke feelings of one-party rule. All the while some ethnic groups, some states and swathes of central Africa remain stuck in a position of developmental purgatory, with conflict simmering away underneath – peace agreements have pacified but they have not resolved. Consequentially, and in order to wedge what the West sees as the quintessential components of peacebuilding into the arrangement, many democratic precepts have been contorted out of recognition.
This laissez-faire approach to democracy and development should be a source of shame for those involved. I’m not convinced that it’s sufficient to say that the state of the GLR today is, in part, the consequence of good intentions gone wrong. It’s simply not enough to have good intentions. If you begin to support a government in the belief that you and they are helping the people, but later on discover that the government has unabashedly crossed the divide from fairness to abuse, then I’m afraid you are abandoning your principles, you are devaluing strengths of democracy, and you are complicit.
Towards Some Alternatives:
Practical solutions to democratic projects in the GLR are burdened by a myriad of complications, but an entreaty for a renewed approach is not. Fostering democratic values is important in states emerging from violence, but instead of applying the same template that we’ve attempted to use for the last quarter of a century, we could start by looking at the bottom and working our way up, rather than imposing democracy form the top down. In the three examples here the focus on presidential elections was relentless, while attempting to develop a democratic tradition via the grass-roots and local elections has been repeatedly overlooked. Infrastructure and bureaucracy are essential in any fragmented and volatile state, but so too is the management of local-level power relationships.
It is unfair and unrealistic to expect the people and leaders of the GLR to overcome so many entrenched problems in such a short period of time. Indeed, Robert Walpole, the first prime minister of Great Britain, governed the country for 22 years under a quasi-democratic system, during which time Britain became prosperous and signed treaties that kept it free from war. Evidently, then, it can take a while to iron out the wrinkles of democracy. With this in mind, the question that has to be answered is [as a consequence of democratic participation] ‘have things improved and moved forward in the GLR from the elections 5-6 years ago?’ In the DRC and Burundi the answer is an unequivocal ‘no’ – and in many ways previous gains have actually receded. Rwanda has made economic and educational gains, but Kagame’s tenure as president has not been as conciliatory as some wish; he has done little for regional stability and has been far from in keeping with democratic norms, balancing justice and protecting human rights.
The states sponsoring elections in the GLR have a bigger role to play in helping to strengthen opposition parties and in retaining their own credibility in the eyes of the broader population. In each of the cases considered here, no opposition party candidate was able to present himself as being capable of taking over the presidency. The main challengers were unable to compete with the campaigning capacity of the incumbent: they were divided and too weak to appear credible (DRC), they were excluded (Rwanda), or they simply withdrew of their own volition in an atmosphere of hopelessness (Burundi). If legitimate and popular support is to be won, a good starting place would be to revamp the political process by levelling the playing field.
The political situation in central Africa is complex. In an environment where histories and conflicts at the local, national, international and regional level are so intertwined, trust is at a premium and it is perhaps not surprising that there is a democratic deficit among constituent communities and countries alike. Added to this, those on the outside who are pursuing stability through democracy are often at odds over the best to achieve this. Such a lack of coherence will continually introduce new problems on top of the complications that Rwanda, Burundi and the DRC are already struggling to overcome.
It may simply be the case that conventional or classic forms of statehood or democracy are not currently compatible with circumstances inside the GLR. A recent report by the UK parliament’s International Development Committee bravely made this case regarding Afghanistan. As in Afghanistan, the top-down democratic process in the GLR is clung to by foreign and domestic elites who continue to perceive it as an unequivocal solution – as though going through the voting procedure once every five years can only be beneficial to development. As George Orwell warned in 1946 this approach is, in fact, problematic:
“It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it; consequently the defenders of every kind of regime claim that it is a democracy.”
This idea that we can call difficult states ‘democratic’ is politically convenient for the West, who can maintain second-rate engagement by doling out cash and claiming that they are supporting democracy, while not worrying to deal with realities on the ground.
Finally, I have deliberately only focused on three countries here. But, it is worth considering that between 2010-11 Cameroon, Chad the Central African Republic, Gabon and Uganda all held presidential elections – in all cases the incumbent was re-elected!