The world is focussed on the so-called Arab Spring (where blossoms are yet to appear) and missing exciting political changes in other parts of the world.
In East Africa, for instance, a pattern of political reforms that is set to change the political landscape in the region is emerging but is not receiving much attention from outside the region. It is perhaps because it is less spectacular than the Arab Spring. It is not happening on the streets for months on end and therefore does not provide exciting footage for foreign TV audiences. Nor does it attract romantics excited by massive crowds facing huge arsenals of the state with their bare hands – and winning.
The East African reform movement is more gradual. It can be traced back to the struggle against one-party rule and its attendant abuses.
In Kenya the anti-Moi/KANU groups, led by the political class, students and elements of the intelligentsia, always came against a stone wall. Everything they threw at Moi and his government fell harmlessly at the big man’s feet.
That changed after 1992 – more significantly after 1997. Cracks began to appear in the wall. The once invincible and feared man against whom successive waves of attacks had been beaten back like one swats a fly began to appear vulnerable. The mask of invincibility was removed and he was exposed as an ordinary, frail mortal who could be beaten.
President Moi’s opponents – those jostling to replace him and genuine reformers – smelt blood and went for the kill. A coalition of political forces, led by President Mwai Kibaki removed him from power.
That did not bring complete reforms. But it illustrated one thing – the era of big man politics was over.
It took the Post Election Violence of early 2008 to finally make wide ranging reforms possible. The citizens pushed the political class to adopt a new, more liberal constitution.
Its adoption was followed by, until then, unexpected happenings. The Chief Justice, other judges and high ranking public service officials were subjected to a public vetting process before they could be appointed. Ordinary people enjoyed this reversal of roles, deriving particular pleasure from seeing some of these important people squirm in their seats as they were questioned. It was another kind of unmasking.
Then parliament began to show its teeth. The members forced ministers to resign as investigations were carried out into their alleged misdeeds. How much of this is posturing and how much real concern for the country remains to be seen. What is certain is that ministers no longer feel the same sort of entitlement they used to.
The Kenya type reform bug has now reached Uganda. President Yoweri Museveni was once revered as the saviour of Uganda. That reverence is gone. He is now reviled in some quarters. He squandered the political goodwill he enjoyed when he had just come to power in 1986. Instead of using it to change the political system, he allowed a cabal of corrupt people in government and business to take control.
Where he was once untouchable, every little fellow now pokes their finger at him. The mask of invincibility has also been removed and his mortality exposed.
Parliament is in a rebellious mood. The Ugandan political class has sensed that Museveni can be beaten and are spoiling for a fight. And for that fight, they have picked on an area where he is most vulnerable – corruption. Parliament has forced some of his ministers to step aside as investigations into alleged corruption are carried out.
You can be sure there will be other rebellions – precisely because they sense that Museveni can be defeated.
It may not be clear whether parliament is driven by a genuine desire for reform, to see Museveni go, or by individuals positioning themselves for a post-Museveni period. But whatever the reason, the outcome will be a different political landscape.
Tanzania is going through a similar experience, with CHADEMA challenging the dominant role of the once all powerful CCM.
In Rwanda, the path to reform has been different. Whereas in the other countries, reform is championed by citizens, civil society and the political class, in Rwanda it is driven by the government. Sometimes you get the sense that the government is dragging a slow people, urging them to move faster to catch up with other countries which have pulled ahead.
There is a sense in which the urgency and direction of reforms are a continuation of the liberation struggle and a consequence of the genocide. It has become necessary to break with the politics of the past and fashion forward looking approaches to governance. Innovation and reform in both governance and business are therefore, answers to Rwanda’s past and future.
Forcing a minister to resign which has excited the public in Kenya and Uganda cannot cause a ripple in Rwanda. There are no sacred cows here.
It is also not possible for anyone to cause unrest in Rwanda in the name of reforms because most of what anyone would agitate for has been taken care of. That explains the absence of any public sympathy for the motley collection of difficult-to-remember political parties and their equally forgettable leaders. They have nothing to offer.
So, East Africa is reforming unnoticed. Perhaps that is a good thing because then, we can do it at our pace and in the interest of our people. We will have home-grown reforms, not those dictated to us by the so-called friends.