Rwandans must draw lessons from the clarity and brilliance with which President Paul Kagame responds to journalists, no matter how misguided or ill-informed some of them might be or sound.
Indeed, some of them are so ill-informed to a point of irritation. And we witnessed this during his recent historic visit to Paris, when he sat with two Libération journalists, for an interview.
The two chose to ignore that this was a true African statesman who, even in Paris, is cheered on by thousands of his people and French friends; a leader who their own President courts for genuine friendship and whose views he values.
Instead, they elected to throw aspersions at his integrity and political legitimacy. Take, for example, their question on the President’s landslide victory during last year’s elections: You got 93% of the vote in the last election. Where is the democracy in that?
This is the kind of question that Western journalists hurl at African politicians all the time. And it is the type of question that evokes in me irritation and sadness in one remove.
I feel infinite irritation because questions that seek to undermine the achievements of our leaders and nations are an affront to our dignity.
Yet, I feel sadness because I realise that those who arrogate to themselves the right to stand judge and jury over our leaders do not even understand their own context or history, let alone ours.
This is clearly reflected in the journalist’s question which seems to suggest that democracy is a factor of equality; of a balanced outcome at an election.
This suggestion is significantly flawed. Democracy is about a people’s right to exercise their rights, irrespective of which way the scale tilts and by what margin, in a political contest.
The President was on the mark when he pointed out that Jacques Chirac got over 80% at France’s 2002 Presidential elections.
Though unmatched in recent times, Chirac’s 2002 exploits have even bigger American ‘cousins’. Didn’t the Libération duo know, for example, that Richard Nixon trounced his opponent, George McGovern, with 96.7% of the Electoral College vote in the 1972 US Presidential elections or that Lyndon Johnson, perhaps riding on the post-JFK assassination emotional wave stormed into the White House with a 90.6% vote in 1964?
The western media never labelled these landslide victories as indicators of democracy in a coffin. Instead, they celebrated them as signals of democracy’s relevance and vibrancy.
So, why the fuss over Rwandan’s emphatic trust in President Kagame’s leadership? Hold your thought!
What history teaches those who care to learn is that a landslide victory in a democratic political context is only one of several likely outcomes.
History also teaches us that a people’s enthusiasm and infatuation with the ideals and practices of democracy is both a factor of specific circumstances and of time.
What is common across most democracies, is that the enthusiasm tends to be very high in the early years of embracing democracy, but declines with time as apathy – a state of socio-political disconnect fuelled by affluence and a corresponding decline in a sense of civic duty - sets in.
A telling example of this decline is the record low voter turn-out in most First World democracies where voting is not compulsory that Western journalists would like the rest of the world to use as a benchmark.
Of note is the fact that in the early 1970s, voter turn-out in Germany, UK and Japan stood at a high of 93%, 80% and 74%, respectively.
By 2005, the level of democratic passion as measured by voter turn-out had suf
fered a decline in all the three major democracies with German standing at 76% down from 93% while UK and Japan had plummeted to 60% and 50%, respectively.
Performance as measured by the percentage of popular vote for winning presidential candidate or party was even worse for these countries over the same period as it oscillated between 35-45% in Germany and UK while Japan even registered a staggeringly low 28.7% when Yoshiro Mori rose to power.
During the same period, voter turn-out in the world’s oldest democracy, USA, hovered around 55%. Indeed, it dipped below 50% in 1995, rising to over 60% because of the Obama magic in the 2008 US Presidential elections. Talk of special circumstances and unique democratic outcomes!
President Kagame is a product of very unique and special circumstances. In last year’s Presidential elections, voter turn-out stood at a high of 95.4 %. This came 17 years after the 1994 genocide agaisnt the Tutsi - the genocide he fought to stop and give his country and people another and more decent chance.
This compares well with the high voter turn-out in Germany in early 1970 which stood at over 91%, about 20 years after the Second World War. There is a parallel to be drawn between the German and Rwandan experiment and enthusiasm with democracy.
Germany was nearly destroyed, through acts of its own madness, at the end of the Second World War. The 1994 genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda nearly consumed the very soul of our nation and left what many thought was a basket case for a country. In Germany, the Marshall Plan came to the rescue.
In Rwanda, President Kagame not only engineered and fought with his men, to end the genocide, he also framed a path to national reconstruction and development that has
resurrected Rwanda from the proverbial basket case to being one of the best governed; most peaceful; most visionary states on the African continent, and one that deliberately defines its people as its best asset and their prosperity, the very object of governance.
Yet, the western media rarely focus on the positive. They bury their heads in the sand of ignorance and only rise to abuse your patience and mine by asking whether a “Hutu” will ever rule Rwanda.
They ignore the fact that our constitution and our laws do not recognise any ethnic entity by such a name. But this is typical of the Western media practitioners and their emotional attachment to the ethnic factor in Africa. This obsession tends to impair their capacity to understand the true African content and character.
Yes, ethnicity has been used to promote inequity, ethnic tensions and even wars. But this is changing. More and more Africans, particularly Rwandans, celebrate each day, that which unites us and makes us stronger by embracing our shared heritage.
And the continent’s new story is slowly unfolding; a story of real African heroes and heroines that are effecting positive transformational change. President Kagame is one of these.
The writer is Rwanda’s High Commissioner to India