Charles Onyango Obbo: 2017 debate distortions

“A big part of the global “Brand Kagame” could well be lost if he continues in office; and his enemies just can’t wait for the moment,” wrote Onyango Obbo. The debate on change and continuity continues to draw many commentators.
An aerial view of Kigali city. (Timothy Kisambira)
An aerial view of Kigali city. (Timothy Kisambira)

“A big part of the global “Brand Kagame” could well be lost if he continues in office; and his enemies just can’t wait for the moment,” wrote Onyango Obbo.

The debate on change and continuity continues to draw many commentators. Some of them distort facts intentionally or are ignorant of Rwanda’s heinous history. As a result, they place Rwanda in the context of ‘one size fits all’ narrative with regard to term limits.

An article by Charles Onyango Obbo published in the Mail and Guardian, got many facts wrong.

He argues that Rwanda’s institutional depth is untested, and may not last beyond President Kagame. Most of our institutions are young. They have been tested and passed the tests of efficiency contrary to what Mr Obbo alleges.

The Auditor General’s office, Ombudsman’s office, the Parliament, the Senate, Judiciary and many others have done a terrific job, and are respected locally and internationally for what they have done in a short-time.

Nevertheless, the same institutions are too young to imagine that their efficiency is a culture. Far from that. They need more time to evolve and develop into strong, stable and sustainable institutions. 

In a developing country like Rwanda, you either have a strong leadership or strong institutions. It is certainly far better to have both strong leadership and strong institutions. Strong institutions are built by strong leaders and not the other way round.

Investment in successors

Mr Obbo also alleges that, the President failed a ‘grade at succession planning’ insinuating that, if he had mentored a successor, our debate would be irrelevant.

Far from it. It is the exemplary leadership, amidst an extremely heinous environment, past, present, and blurred future, that makes his succession quite scary to most Rwandans, save for foreigners. And, the issue of mentoring a successor is a flawed argument for many reasons.

First, as the President mentioned in his interview recently with Jeune Afrique, doing so would mean that he is dictating to the Rwandan people who should be their next leader. Rwandans are the ones to choose a successor, not to be chosen for. Secondly, Rwanda is not a monarchy where a king/queen is replaced by their anointed heir apparent. Besides, such a successor has to emerge naturally and be seen to be one chosen by the Rwandan people. That none has emerged so far cannot be the President’s fault. This does not imply that potential candidates are not there. They certainly are, only that they need more time to evolve from potential to actual leaders. They will need time to take over a very complex environment as the one we have in Rwanda.

Besides, if we have strong leadership, and strong institutions, successors would emerge naturally.

Rwanda has had three Prime Ministers under President Kagame’s leadership (including the current one) and not four as Mr Obbo alleges.

The first one, Honourable Bernard Makuza, served for ten years. One wonders whether this is a short tour of duty, as Obbo alleges. He is now the president of the Senate – the second highest position after the President according to our constitution. The next Premier was Pierre-Damien Habumuremyi, who served a three year term, and left due to his own problems which he confessed publically.

The argument that “being a PM in Rwanda is generally a short tour of duty, not allowing them to develop the skills to be pretenders to the throne”… is a serious distortion of the reality on the ground. The Prime Ministers oversee government business and they do that according to our constitution. They are not chosen to be heir apparent (nor running mates to the President). If they are to be presidential hopefuls, they have to measure up to the task, and be seen to be. The President has not and doesn’t limit their capacities in anyway. Every Rwandan has the same and equal chance to hold the highest office in the land. But they must merit it, and the Rwandan people who are generally critical) must be convinced that they are of presidential material.

Enemies of the President or enemies of Rwanda?

Mr Obbo also argues that ‘his enemies (President Kagame’s) though have always lost – finding it a hard job to run against his record and they are angry. “…they are waiting for the right moment …handed to them when constitutional amendment removes term limits”. Well, it is precisely because of this very excellent record that the Rwandan people want more of him. I don’t know which enemies we have against his exemplary record, but if they are there, then they are enemies of Rwanda, and not enemies of President Kagame.

For the record that has put them off is for the people of Rwanda, and it is these very people that are seeking to amend their constitution to allow the sustenance of the said exemplary record.

What is important for us Rwandans is what is in our interest, and anybody against these interests (development) becomes a national rather than a personal enemy of President Kagame.

Mr Obbo argues that, …“stepping down leaves him with the moral authority to influence direction of the country, much like Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere did, and even stage a come-back should the country be plunged in a future crisis”.

First, Mwalimu Julius Nyerere ruled Tanzania from Independence in 1964 to 1985, a total of 21 years. He united a country void of genocide. The 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi tore Rwanda’s social, economic, as well political fabric apart.

Rwanda is not Tanzania, or any other country for that matter, and comparisons renders simplistic what is otherwise a very complex environment. For instance, the abnormal country Rwanda has been is not yet out of the woods. It is just on course.

Secondly, the unity and reconciliation project central to the survival of Rwanda as a nation state is such that, President Kagame has had the moral authority to be trusted by all parties for unity to happen. This project would be adversely affected by his departure. It may probably end with his departure in 2017.

Furthermore, once a leader in Africa has left office, chances of coming back when the country is in crisis are remote, if not impossible, as the office holder will make sure that the outgoing leader is out of sight.

Many examples of this scenario abound in Africa. Moreover, given our past context, the issue of national crisis is a reality, and not a possibility. If so, why allow it in the first place? Rwandans know what is best for Rwanda.

We are ultimately the sole beneficiaries and sole losers either way. We can’t lose what we can afford not to, and must avoid to lose Kagame, and Rwanda.

The writer is an expert in finance and economics.

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