RAS Event: Central Africa’s Democratic Transitions?
Little change in Uganda, Rwanda and South Sudan
Rwanda, Uganda and South Sudan have all recently experienced democratic elections be they Presidential, representative or in the case of South Sudan, a referendum on its secession from the North. However, does the existence of elections across the region (Burundi and DRC could also be included in this analysis) mean that good democratic practises are being embedded in the fabric of political society? Are elections to be celebrated when they do not see a transfer of power from ruling parties which appear increasingly dominant?
Rwanda – Dr Phil Clark
Phil describes popular analysis of Rwanda as falling into 2 camps:
- The romantic aid darling – a haven of stability in a volatile region
- The demonised transgresser of human rights
The reality is much messier.
Any analysis of elections in Rwanda must conclude that they bring the worst out in its current political climate. They reveal the fractured and often paranoid nature of contemporary Rwandan politics
During 2010 it became apparent that President Kagame and the RPF had a stranglehold on power, to the extent that the elections were effectively uncontested. This was reflected in the polls by the RPF’s victory with 93 percent of the vote.
The most high profile opposition figure was Victoire Ingabire from the United Democratic Forces party. However, Phil argues that she was never in reality a serious candidate, being an obscure figure who had largely lived in the Netherlands until the early 1990s. Ingabire fought an ill-conceived campaign, and marked herself out as being desperately out of touch by her targeting of the Gacaca court process. In short, the RPF could have left her alone and still have won the election by a landslide.
A key question must be – why did the RPF crack down so harshly on Ingabire if it knew it would win anyway? Wouldn’t it have been better to allow her to campaign, win perhaps 5 percent of the vote, and be thus able to demonstrate to the international community the openness of Rwanda’s democratic system?
Most demonising attitudes towards the RPF come from Human Rights groups. However, Phil argues that the “˜authoritarian’ and “˜dictatorial’ labels belie a more complicated reality. The RPF as a party does not act in the cohesive fashion in which it is often portrayed. The crackdown on the Ingabire campaign is a symbol of a highly divided government that is becoming increasingly factionalised.
The success of the Gacaca process is evidence to suggest that hardliners – those that have favoured a more heavy-handed justice system for perpetrators of genocide (including Kagame) – have not won out. In this case, the pragmatic, moderate argument has won the day to produce justice and reconstruction in an internationally palatable manner. What this shows is that Kagame, and those more hard-line than the President, do not always get their own way. The state is increasingly divided, and crackdowns occur against soft targets such as Ingabire.
In the last few years more moderate voices have been gaining power in the RPF, evidenced by the abolition of the death penalty, rejection of a “˜Uganda-style’ anti-gay law and the continuation of the Gacaca court system. In addition, more hard-line voices – notably dissident generals – have also left the RPF. All is not well within the party.
Phil, who has written extensively on Gacaca courts, critiques the analysis that they have been simply a form of “˜mob justice’ or localised tools for political control through the RPF. There have been approximately 11,000 Gacaca courts set up in Rwanda, a number that would make it impossible for RPF control (or intelligence) to have penetrated all of them. The reality is that Gacaca has become an important space for political contestation with no real danger of government interference.
In conclusion, the most recent Rwandan election has pointed to a ruling party that is divided and fragile. The aggressive treatment of opposition figures was an unnecessary error, but reveals much about the current internal state of the RPF.
Uganda – Zachary Lomo
Zachary illustrated what he sees as Uganda’s unsuccessful attempt to move from single person regimes to rule “˜by the people’ through a brief description of the country’s electoral history since independence.
Uganda had its first post-independence election in 1961 but then held no multi-party elections from 1962 until 80 under both the UPC governments of Milton Obote and Idi Amin’s military regime. In 1980 with the return of Obote (after Amin had been thrown from power) the UPC held blatantly rigged elections which Yoweri Museveni rejected and tried to “˜shoot his way to power.’ He was finally successful in 1986 and after the National Resistance Army had turned into the National Resistance Movement the “˜Movement System’ was created (every Ugandan becoming a member of this national political association.)
Throughout the 1990s political parties were banned, and whilst elections did take place for the constituent assembly seats no campaigning at a grass roots level was permitted. In the 1996 election Museveni triumphed with 75 percent of the vote.
The 2001 election saw the first instance in which opposition political parties were able to challenge the status quo. This came in the form of a challenge by the President’s former doctor – Kizza Besigye – who formed the Forum for Democratic Change and won nearly 28 percent of the vote. Besigye challenged the results of this election in the supreme court – accusing the government of rigging.
In 2006 Besigye was again the main opposition figure. Zachary described these elections as being the most violent in Uganda’s recent history with Besigye also being arrested on charges of rape (and later released). Museveni won with 59 percent of the vote, the 10 percent he had lost from 2001 going to Besigye who gained 37 percent.
The 2011 election did not follow the developing pattern of decreasing support from Museveni and the NRM. Whilst there was no real violence, it was suggested that the NRM’s far greater capacity to spend vast sums on its campaign was instrumental in its gains.
Zachary consequently argued that the fundamentals of democracy are not, and have never been, in place in Uganda. Elections must be part of a broader process, and in themselves they do not necessarily facilitate transitions to democracy. Uganda has not yet experienced a real democratic transition. Uganda essentially remains a military country, and institutions of governance and the party are infused. For Uganda to truly democratise it must truly desecuritise its systems of government.
South Sudan – Mareike Schomerous
South Sudan was chosen as a comparative example for this meeting owing to its recent and historic electoral experience with both the referendum (2011), and national election in 2010.
Mareike stated that both elections and referendum were both great technical achievements for the South Sudanese. However, it is important to analyse how such “˜democratic rituals’ actually affected the process of politics for the people of South Sudan.
- Elections became something of a substitute for politics – many people thought that their voices did not really matter as everyday lives did not change. It was also suggested that elections devalued the idea of political plurality as there was virtually no debate over whether South Sudanese people should vote for unity or independence. The “˜yes’ vote for independence also seemed to devalue, to some extent, the 2005 Combined Peace Agreement (CPA) with the North, and the original intention was to push for a plural Sudan under joint government.
- The 2010 elections set a challenging precedent, and 20 percent less people voted in the 2011 referendum than did in the previous elections. The 2010 election was a quite traumatic experience for many people and the SPLM ran virtually uncontested in an electoral process that was very difficult to comprehend for many voters. A limited investment in civic education also meant that the voting process itself was difficult to understand and fully engage with.
- Prospects for democratic change? The CPA created a “˜ramp of expectation’ from South Sudanese people, but after it was signed expectations declined as people found their lives did not greatly improve. Support for the SPLM and independence were extremely high, which raises the question whether elections are worthwhile if they simply cement one party or idea in power? Are such rituals really worth it?
It was commented that South Sudan’s recent electoral “˜events’ were also largely donor driven. They would not have happened without significant international investment. However, it was pointed out that “˜democracy is by nature transitional’ and as such cannot be expected to function perfectly, or to solve a multitude of problems without long-term investment.
The intention in hosting this discussion was to assess how “˜democratic’ the three countries in question (which have all recently held elections, or electoral events) actually are. Broad conclusions suggest that electoral events do tells us a great deal about the functioning of democracy in these three instances.
In Rwanda we have a paranoid and divided ruling party too concerned with controlling any opposition, Uganda remains a militarised state where the ruling party and the government are one and the same thing, whilst South Sudan is a very young country in which a great deal is expected from elections which simply cannot deliver these gains. Elections in all three case studies do not seem to deliver the “˜democratic transitions’ suggested in the event title, however they do function as revealing events in the political development of all three countries.
Thanks to all speakers, and to Thomas Mawan Muortat for chairing the event.
By Magnus Taylor