Some people I have known for many years, recently ran for parliament in different parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Some are sparring partners of mine on matters political, in Africa particularly.
The recurrent point of contention is whether highly competitive multiparty politics, presidential term-limits and regular changes in leadership or what in French they call alternance, are the key to solving “Africa’s problems.” It can provoke strong emotions.
A few years ago, when Rwandans were grappling with the question of whether to amend their Constitution to open the way for President Paul Kagame to run again after his second seven-year term expired, we debated the issue furiously. It is worth remembering that outside Rwanda, many people argued that Kagame ought to “step down and set a good example.”
A dominant view was, “He should not be like other African leaders who cling to power.”
Long before Rwandans started discussing it, I also felt it would be good if he did and would argue strongly that he would. I was therefore taken aback when friends in Kigali began to say they supported the proposal to amend the Constitution and wanted him to run again and stay.
Intrigued, I took to listening more than talking and paid close attention to what Rwandans, supporters of the ruling party and those of other parties, had to say about the matter. Gradually it became clear that there was a meeting of minds among potentially rival political parties.
Nine out of the 11 registered parties opted to support the proposed constitutional amendment and campaign for Kagame if he agreed to run. I attended one party’s congress and was struck by the open debate through which the decision was arrived at.
I changed my mind. I accepted that Rwandans had the right to ask their president to stay on, just as they had the right to tell him to leave or to vote him out of office if they chose to. That a referendum to decide the issue was planned, in a country where voting is voluntary but citizens behave as if it were compulsory, with well over 90 per cent of eligible voters voting each time, was persuasive enough.
When one of my friends, Jean-Pierre, and I eventually met, the issue came up. He was emphatic: If Kagame stayed, even if Rwandans urged him to, it would be undemocratic. There was a need, he emphasised, for “alternance” through “real competition” among different parties and entirely new candidates.
By “real competition” he meant what I call “adversarial contestation.” I am not a fan of it, not because it is intrinsically bad. Rather, it is because its potential to be highly disruptive in democracies in the making, is enormous. There are numerous examples of this across Africa.
Well, as is often said, experience is the best teacher. When Jean-Pierre decided to run for parliament in the DRC, he did so with a sense of mission. He threw not only energy, but also money into the campaigning. The locals received him with enthusiasm, attending his rallies in droves.
Such was the music and general happiness at the rallies that it sowed real panic among his competitors. They took to the usual badmouthing so characteristic of adversarial contestation, and worse. But he soldiered on, the public showing ever greater enthusiasm. Two days before the elections, someone asked me: “Will he win?” I believed he would, and said so.
And then the voting took place and things became rather interesting, to say the least. At the time of writing, the results were yet to be declared officially. However, there were strong indications of who had performed well or badly.
Jean-Pierre still expected to be elected, but there were questions about the integrity of the whole process, the damage that malpractices had inflicted on intra-community relations, and how long it would take to repair them, if ever.
There were stories that some voters had been prevented from voting, and that some candidates who had not even campaigned had performed better than those who had thrown everything into the process.
Apparently among factors that made the difference was money changing hands, as incumbents did all they could to hang on to their seats and newcomers did their best to get them thrown out. That, Jean-Pierre said, was not surprising at all. What was, is how voters responded to the candidates’ manoeuvres.
Many, despite having shown commitment to supporting particular candidates, switched sides as soon as money showed up. At that point the flowery speeches and sugar-coated promises of candidates without money hardly mattered.
Jean-Pierre was appalled. If this was what “highly competitive” multiparty politics produced, he could now see its flaws in the context of his home region where dirty tricks carry the day, as votes are bartered for cash by voters who want to benefit directly from the elections.
He called and literally floored me: “You should write a book about this. Its title should be ‘democracy is not for Africans’.”
Of course, democracy is as good for Africans as it is for everyone else. The question is simply one of definition and, as I see it, willingness to factor context into political aspirations.
Frederick Golooba-Mutebi is a Kampala- and Kigali-based researcher and writer on politics and public affairs. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org