Updated: Jan 21, 2020
The election of Rwanda to the African Union presidency in 2018 means Paul Kagame, the country’s president, will be the epitome of this leadership. Like many leaders in today’s Africa, Mr. Kagame stacks a few skeletons in his closet if human rights, in particular, were invoked to judge him. Regardless, this appointment was bound to happen at some point, and, amidst the numerous voices that would rather Mr. Kagame bask in his ills, far away from Africans, this website would rather let history judge if welcoming his leadership is the best Africa could do for itself.
Running a military-leaning regime back home, Mr. Kagame’s presidency of the African Union, we believe, will represent a turn in African international diplomacy. Maybe not. And, possibly, a shift in the thinking towards outcomes all too desperately needed to turn the continent around. Obviously, what has worked for the Rwandan economy may not comprise a one-size-fits-all checklist of counter strategies to the continent’s vices, which are too numerous and complex to mention. Yet, Africa’s complex troubles, including economic stagnation, underdevelopment,long episodes of peace and security degradation, and sluggish prosperity requires a pragmatician who will inspire resolve towards the individual and collective goals of the continent’s nations and, more importantly, a step closer to independence that has remained Mr. Kagame’s message since taking over the reins of government in Rwanda in 2000.
Mr. Kagame’s leadership style exhibits a reluctance to fully acknowledge democracy as the blueprint for the politics back home. And many would fear that his leadership could be encouraging to a few tyrants that hold on to power across the continent, to the detriment of many a nation’s prospect for positive real growth. But, despite the semblance of a rather inadequate human rights record, and politics that seem often bound to Mr. Kagame’s whims, his successes to drive Rwanda to greater heights precede him. In the 21 years between 1995 and 2015, the country averaged 9.5% economic growth, ending at 6.9% in 2015. This growth is forecasted to stay at 7% in 2018 and 2019 (World Bank). Social indicators are on the move too, though not as impressive, and Mr. Kagame has the unenviable task to translate his economic dexterity into better redistributive prospects for the common Rwandan (inequality remains high). This progress is a characteristic not shared with the majority of his peers on the continent.
This is no mean achievement for a man hailing from a minority tribe that faced some of the worst atrocities humanity has ever seen, charged with the task to unite friends and foes whose bitterness towards each other would remain vivid through the course of recovery, nation rebuilding and development. But if more credit were sought, Mr. Kagame scores an important point for brokering reconciliation between Hutus and Tutsis to properly heal the wounds of the 1994 genocide.
A UK-based Financial Times journalist, in 2010, shared Mr. Kagame’s admiration of the two Asian Tigers Singapore and South Korea. Singapore, itself not strange to lengthy political regimes, yet adorned with so much economic and social success, may well be a soothing encouragement for Mr. Kagame’s self-restraint to hand over power to a successor any time soon. (Elections take place on 4 August 2017, and Mr. Kagame does not seem to face presidential hopefuls he cannot manage.) It is no surprise how the economic success of his Rwanda renders itself much to this description. However, Mr. Kagame seems determined to get to this end. And he should, by all means, be encouraged.
The main litmus to Mr. Kagame’s leadership of the continental body will be his success to push through the African Union reforms, which, by a variety of measures, look to Africa’s independence from foreign aid. As soon as possible. For many African countries that have kept their mouths – and dignity – open to the ineffectiveness and cunning beckons of aid, the comfort enjoyed by many of the usually corrupt African leaders will be hard to let go. Even though it is almost morally right that it is high time Africans needed to rid themselves of what is already shrinking aid and with it diminishing returns to – so far – non-transformative foreign assistance, the appeal of free money remains. However, according to Mr. Kagame’s reckoning, much like with the Asian Tigers, this would also mean a leveling of the playing field in international relations to a certain degree.
Africa needs to change its development game. And perhaps his peers need to be open to a taste of Mr. Kagame’s ambitions and make the leap of faith aimed at a new formula. Firstly, it is because the lessons from aid – whose success mainly overwhelmingly turned around European countries as a result of the Marshall Plan, which did rebuild European countries ravaged by World War II, may no longer be applicable to Africa today. Secondly, tying aid to conditionalities since the 1960s, when many African countries obtained independence, only maintained the bonds of individual nations to foreign countries while effectively changing the manner of colonization. Thirdly, probably more importantly, is the evidence of development that occurs under greater national sovereignty terms that the Asian Tigers and other Asian countries (China, India and Vietnam, in particular) exercised, in spite of the persuasion of ODA hanging on their doorsteps.
A little wisdom would help here. The reality of AU leaders with one too many blemishes will likely stay with the continent for a long time. As a matter of fact, the founder of the Union, a man known for brutality on his own people and a perceived threat to global security, Libya’s Muamar Ghaddafi, ended in a shameful and public killing as suitable punishment for his notoriety. The Union he founded in 2000 to replace the Organization of African Unity (OAU) still stands and owes a large portion of its operational and development budgets to foreign aid. It probably signals there was some good in the continental body that it is worth the investment. This means in 2019, another leader with a defective record may well be charged with the ponderous task to chaperon the continent’s 1 billion people to the future.
This time, it is encourageable that African leaders rally behind Mr. Kagame as they have done in the past with others. His version of leadership that is driving reform in his country appears brutal to the world, but his commitment to making Rwanda a greater nation seems believable. Already, ten other African countries are looking to join the “aid free” bandwagon in 2018 because of the anticipated profits and freedoms it promises to individual countries in a dynamic world. His demonstration of social reforms by being gender-supportive in his own Parliament indicates not just a soft side of the once guerrilla lord, but also something many Western countries that give him aid will envy for a long time. Certainly, Africa’s flagship strategy, Agenda 2063, may benefit greatly from the stimulus his single year of his stewardship may provide.
We cannot say, for sure, that 2018 will guarantee gains to Mr. Kagame’s leadership that will be worth reckoning for Africa. But while he poses as one of the rare African leaders that may be genuinely interested in Africa’s development, beyond much rhetoric that is the norm in many countries, embracing the chance to learn of his intentions will be worthwhile for the continent’s future.