How democracy sponsors distort democracy

When the European Union announced that it would not send election observers to Rwanda it seemed that they’d decided that Rwandans had finally grown and no longer needed to be held by the hand to cross the road.

When the European Union announced that it would not send election observers to Rwanda it seemed that they’d decided that Rwandans had finally grown and no longer needed to be held by the hand to cross the road. This seemed odd – had they changed their ways, some must have wondered; others were sceptical and this must be some kind of remonstration, a boycott: Rwanda had decided that it would fund its own election, responsibility that was ‘traditionally’ theirs – the Europeans.

He who funds controls, of course. And so, to deny one funding is to deny them control. With the front door closed, the Europeans (and Americans) took the backdoor: control by other means, remote control.


The first window was the opposition. Ambassadors of these countries either brought candidates from the opposition to their offices or they visited them to their private homes. To some, this was a harmless gesture intended to show solidarity to these candidates, especially given the strength of the incumbent they are about to compete against (the second window was the media: let’s not beat a dead horse).


For keen observers, however, the aim was to confer legitimacy to these candidates. The immediate questions are why, in their assessment, the Europeans and American Ambassadors believe these candidates to be illegitimate, to whom they are illegitimate, and why they think they are the ones to confer legitimacy onto them.


External legitimacy

One has to consider the problem of political legitimacy in Africa in order to fully grasp the dynamics that inform this theatre – a tragedy, really. It is a sad commentary that since attaining independence to today the African state has tended to place a premium on external legitimacy, with the quest for internal legitimacy being a secondary pursuit.

This has informed the kind of democracy that has been pursued. It has also affected the kind of development and policies that have been put in place. Whether domestic or foreign –agriculture, health, education, trade, diplomacy – the impetus to cater for this amorphous external constituency has been ever so present. It has distorted both democracy and development. In other words, if democracy and development are supposed to be responsive, they’ve done so towards an external constituency.

Pandering to external actors and interest has not come without a cost. The biggest cost has been the inability to grow a local constituency that is invested in protecting socioeconomic gains. It has given rise to a democracy that is unable to yield sustainable outcomes.

This reality informs that notion among Western scholars – and parroted by African scholars – that African dictators are the reason progress in Africa is unsustainable. The example of Mali is enough to show that a democracy can win all the external accolades but remain extremely vulnerable internally – and therefore unable to secure its gains.

Leadership deficit in Africa

The lesson is this: Whether it is a dictatorship or a democracy, nothing is more ruinous than reliance on external validity. This is true even in human beings. A state that does so cannot expect to be held accountable by its people because they are not its primary constituency. In other words, at issue is that neither democracy nor dictatorship is desirable if it does not lead to one thing: internal accountability.

Alternatively, this suggests that being accountable externally will lead to collapse regardless of whether it happens in a democracy or a dictatorship. At any rate, there is no democracy to speak of in a situation where external legitimacy rules the roost. Whose democracy is it, anyways?

Africa has had a leadership deficit due to this single factor. For long, the ruckus has been whether this or that leader is a dictator or a democrat when the conversation should have been around accountability, especially their record on building internal – as opposed to external – legitimacy. The rest is a ruse.

This is how Africans ought to assess their leaders. It is the only way to force them out of a nagging, undignified, relationship in which both the incumbent and the opposition have been guilty. For the incumbent, the problem has been explained away as a challenge of continued reliance on development aid. Which is a fair rebuttal. However, this has been more of an excuse than an explanation.

The votes are in the villages

That is because even those countries that do not rely so much on external aid find themselves in a similar bind, suggesting that the relationship that results from seeking external legitimacy is deeply ingrained and has been normalised in the minds of the African elite.

The opposition has fared worse. As long as their pursuit for power is steeped in embassies – a non-voting constituency – very little is expected of them in efforts geared towards overcoming this problem where the local constituency is considered an afterthought.

Even if the benevolence of the Europeans and Americans were to be taken on face value, we’d expect them to invest their energies in ensuring that democracy in Rwanda in general and the elections in particular are deeply embedded in the local constituency, even if this required them to take a back seat.

If theirs was a benign solidarity, we’d expect them to follow the opposition candidates in the villages – not to invite them in embassies – to help them collect the signatures they need to meet the basic requirements for getting on the ballot.

If theirs was a pursuit of values, we’d expect them to help to preserve the independence of the electoral commission and the sanctity of the electoral process, not to bully around the NEC. 

I leave you with a message from the EU Head of Delegation to Rwanda: “Today #Rwanda celebrates 55 years of independence. Umunsi Mwiza w’Ubwigenge #Rwanda!”

A ruse.

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