Mr President, they are hearing but are they listening?

As part of his trip to the United Nations, President Paul Kagame stopped at Yale University in New Haven Connecticut last week to give a talk. As intellectual tradition goes, Yale is ideologically to the centre-left and Harvard to the centre-right of the American political discourse on matters of governance.

As part of his trip to the United Nations, President Paul Kagame stopped at Yale University in New Haven Connecticut last week to give a talk. As intellectual tradition goes, Yale is ideologically to the centre-left and Harvard to the centre-right of the American political discourse on matters of governance.

Indeed,the two schools are the intellectual engine that powers the American political system and the glue that holds society together by bringing ideological balance, the same way intellectual subversion that “disturbs” this American peace, exposing its warts for purposes of nudging the national conscience, is traditionally, and proudly I must add, the responsibility of my dear Howard University.

 

This is why President Kagame’s talk on the African Renaissance should take place at “The Mecca of Black Intelligentsia”. These talks, like the one at Yale last week and Harvard before, matter a lot. The reasons are many but I shall dwell on one: it’s about the lions.

 

Rest assured that when President Kagame goes to these schools he understands that he’s inside the lion’s den where he must be prepared for an eye-ball-to-eyeball stare-off. This is crystal clear to him. Why else would he choose a subject for discussion as controversial as democracy?

 

He hungers for such a face-off. For one thing, he understands that democracy is a subject that has been perceived as controversial, but one that isn’t at all. That is because Rwandans have long settled this matter; it’s the outsiders that insist on maintaining the “controversy.” It doesn’t matter how much efforts have been made to create clarity for them. It’s like the dialogue of the deaf, for lack of a better metaphor.

They are hearing but they are not listening. As a result, the purpose of such talks is to hammer things home. This time round, the President went to the den to drill down what democracy means in substance, in general, and to draw the distinction between processes and outcomes of democracy in particular.

Democracy is a method, not an end. Its objective is to confer legitimacy to those in leadership and to the decisions they make. Moreover, there are a multitude of methods for achieving this objective. Which is why the President implored those in the audience to exorcize the dogmatic fascination that focuses on the methods and ignores the outcomes. It is dangerous, he warned, because the best that can be achieved from it is “slash and burn democratisation.”

This fetish with a standard “democratic process” that must be “respected” is a myth. There is no ‘one size fits all’. On the contrary, what needs respecting is for every society to craft context specific processes that produce legitimate leadership as long as those methods are democratic in nature; that is, any method that is undergirded by “a value system [that] accords each citizen the ability to give input and have [their] concerns addressed,” the President laboured to explain to an audience in which some who had come with a pre-existing commitment to disagree with anything he would say – to hear but not to listen.

In other words, the menu of options cannot be narrowed down to the liberal democratic variant. That is because the assumptions therein that constitute the “bedrock of democracy” are underdeveloped in much of the societies like the one President Kagame leads. This is what makes its aims counterproductive despite the argument fronted by those who seek to universalise this variant and its “bedrock” values that it is the ‘restrictive’ political systems that explain why liberal democracy fails.

It’s an argument that seeks to exploit the chicken and egg conundrum. However, the recent presidential elections in the U.S. and in Africa ought to settle this debate – and to dismiss any claims to such paradox. The rise of Donald Trump has polarised American society. His bare knuckle politics has given rise to a contentious and confrontational “democratic process.”

His brand of politics has been branded “dangerous.” He’s been disavowed by America’s wise men and women in the media and academia and in the high echelons of the military and political establishment.

Consider this. Trumpism has not led to systemic loss of life, only incidents involving a murdered (black) person here and there. Clearly, the consequences of Trump’s disruption are not anywhere near the level they would be were such polarisation to takes place in our neck of the woods: it’s certainly nowhere close to the violence in Kenya in 2008; or in Burundi last year and continuing; nor is it as anxiety-ridden as the most recent election in Uganda; and clearly not close to what’s happening in the DR Congo.

Americans have nurtured the requisite firewall to prevent The Donald’s political rhetoric from turning into mass violence. Yet, its wise are up in fits. For us, electoral cycles have become synonymous with battlegrounds. They are war-like so much so that the political atmosphere that follows them is akin to governing a post-war armed victory, of a civil war kind, to be precise.

When countries with centuries-old democratic practices impose their methods on those that are still underdeveloped the result is “slash and burn democratisation.” Unmitigated copy-paste is why we pay a high price: refugees, internally displaced persons, arson, death. The casualty are the poor due to limited mobility. Which begs the inconveniencing questions: Should the poor continue to be sacrificed at the altar of the sanctity of the “democratic process”? Whose democracy is it, anyways? Why do others seem to love them so much that they’d wish death upon them?

Finally, who gets to say who is legitimate and who isn’t? Tell that to the lions.

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