Kagame could be the next Mandela ― if he steps down

Photocredit: thestar.com — Chip Somadavilla / Getty Images

Originally published on Mail and Guardian

This year, Africa got rare good news when Liberia’s president, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf was announced winner of the Mo Ibrahim Prize for Good Governance. This was important. For several years, the prize has been elusive, with no African presidents qualifying.

Sirleaf was an impressive leader: expertly handling her nation’s Ebola crisis, erasing $5-billion from her country’s foreign debt; and growing the national budget during her tenure over 400%, from $80-million to $516-million. But above all, it was her keeping of the peace after 14 years of a debilitating civil war, and supervising a successful handing over of power under a free and fair election, where she refused to tip the scales for her own party, that cemented her legacy.

In doing this, she stood shoulders above her peers in the region. Still, she left her nation with excruciating poverty, a pall of nepotism-driven corruption, and a closing down of economic spaces and opportunity. That has remained a stain on her legacy, however much celebration she deserves.

On the other side of the continent, however, we have a more hopeful story, and that story is President Paul Kagame.

For a generation of leaders, Kagame is a paradox. Here is a man who fulfills the promise of visionary, progressive leadership — on every count from improving gender parity in government to free and competent healthcare.

In addition to this, he has supervised a long-standing regime of peace in his country, ensured security and stability and strengthened political and social institutions.

But it’s not all good news. Unfortunately, Kagame has refused to let go of power. Instead, he has supervised some of the most oppressive political spaces in Africa, silencing dissent with impunity, promoting a climate of fear, hunting down political opponents, intimidating rivals, muzzling the press and ensuring an electoral process that guaranteed a ridiculous 98% victory in last year’s elections.

In doing this, he has fallen down the same well-worn path of a number of African dictators, the totem of which is Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe. Like Kagame, Mugabe began as the toast of the newly free nations, showing vision and sophistication, building bridges and institutions, expanding healthcare and education.

Unfortunately, barely two years after his 1980 presidential victory, the onslaught on the opposition began: at least 10 000 people were killed between 1982 and 1985 as he somehow got it into his head that only he could sustain the progress, and that only he could lead the country.

It is important to remember the parallels too many to ignore, and thus the great risk that lies in Kagame’s tortured grip on power.

Of what use is a developed country that leans only on one man to tell its story and to build its future? Of what use are Kagame’s victories if they lead him down the slippery slope where maintaining one’s own grip on authority and loyalty takes precedence over the good of the many? Why should we trust this one man with absolute, unlimited power when the evidence shows us that, in this continent, in this context, this kind of story has never had a happy ending?

Of course, when these issues are raised, fingers are pointed in counter-argument to Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew, as if to justify authoritarianism with his thirty years in power.

But that sets off a false dichotomy between progress and freedom, and presents a false choice that is presented to African nations. We do not need to sacrifice our liberties to gain development.

And especially with regard to our recent history, when it comes to building great nations, our eyes should take us closer home, where we have an abundance to learn from one of the world’s greatest modern leaders, yet unmatched.

If Kagame wants to find a model, the best model he will find is South Africa’s Nelson Mandela, who the continent celebrates on Wednesday with Mandela Day. Mandela did what history requested of him — he served only one term as president and then graciously stepped aside.

As far as our continent knows, this is the only model from Botswana to Namibia, South Senegal to the Republic of Benin that has worked from us.

If Kagame refuses to learn from these lessons of history, he will rob our continent of our big chance at an African leader of historic consequence, and he will be falling well short of his own great potential.