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Ethnic Fault Lines Simmer Below Surface of Rwanda and Kenya’s Elections

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There are two elections in August that will decide the next presidents of two critical East African countries. Rwanda will hold its presidential election Aug. 4, and Kenya will hold its general election Aug. 8. The state of governance is different between these countries, but ethnic factions dominating politics is a common theme.

In Rwanda, Paul Kagame has been president since 2000. He is part of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) party, which is credited with ending the genocide in 1994 that resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths, largely of Tutsis, the minority ethnic group that were systematically targeted by Hutu militant extremists, but also of Hutus who were killed by the rebel movement led by RPF. A long, bitter history of ethnic rivalry still simmers between Hutus and Tutsis, and although Kagame has outlawed any discussion of ethnicity in Rwanda, people still strongly identify with their ethnic group. Since Kagame has been in power, the government has been a Tutsi stronghold.

Kagame has put Rwanda on more stable footing politically and economically, and some argue that he needs to remain in power to maintain the peace of the nation and keep it on a path toward continued improvement. Kagame himself is the biggest proponent of this view, and he does enjoy widespread popularity in the electorate. The national gains under his rule, however, have come at the cost of stifling dissent.

a4.africa.rwanda.kagame.storyMeanwhile, in Kenya, Uhuru Kenyatta, who has been president since 2013, does not have anywhere near the tight grip on power that Kagame has. Kenya’s election is competitive, and experts say it’s hard to predict who will win. Former Prime Minister Raila Odinga is Kenyatta’s main opponent. Kenyatta is a member of the Jubilee Party, whose supporters include the Kikuyu and Kalenjin ethnic groups. Odinga is part of the National Super Alliance coalition, whose supporters include the Luo, Luhya and Kamba ethnic groups.

The 2007 election in Kenya, with accusations of ballot rigging, resulted in violent ethnic clashes. Odinga fanned the flames of protest against election results that gave his then-opponent, Mwai Kibaki, a narrow victory. The election of 2013 was a quiet one, most likely because outside observers kept watch on the process, but this year’s election may not be so quiet, depending on whether Odinga or Kenyatta stir up trouble.

Rwanda: An Authoritarian Regime Disguised as Democracy?

Rwanda may hold elections, but experts argue democracy is only a guise in the country. Kagame has held onto power by pushing through a referendum that enabled a change to the constitution to allow him to run for a third term.

“There’s no chance anyone other than Kagame will win,” Richard Downie, the acting director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies Africa Program, told The Diplomat. “There is no viable opposition. Everything in the system is tilted to Kagame getting another term in office.”

a4.africa.rwanda.street.storyKagame keeps a sharp eye on opposition and quashes any threats. “Opponents end up in exile or end up dead. You think long and hard before standing against him,” said Downie.

One of his opponents in this election, Diane Shima Rwigara, was neutralized with the release of nude photos to publicly embarrass her. Over the years, political opponents and critical journalists have been arrested, harassed, beaten, killed or disappeared.

While Kagame has been criticized for muzzling dissent, he also enjoys genuine popular support for pulling the country back from the brink of oblivion. He has fought to move the nation beyond the bloodshed of 1994 by banning talk of ethnicity in Rwanda and embracing a policy of reconciliation over revenge, and many Rwandans appreciate the stability he has brought in the wake of a genocide that touched the lives of nearly everyone in the country.

A soft-spoken but shrewd technocrat who admires economic success stories such as Singapore, Kagame is credited with transforming the nation of 11 million. His “Vision 2020” strategy aims to turn Rwanda from a low-income, agriculture-based economy into a knowledge-based, service-oriented economy with middle-income status by 2020.

Today, Kigali’s streets are clean, traffic is orderly, crime is rare and high-speed internet is readily available. Under Kagame’s rule, child mortality has been slashed, school attendance has skyrocketed and foreign development money has poured in. He has tackled corruption, poverty and inequality, with the country’s parliament boasting the highest proportion of female members in the world.

Kagame’s most notable achievement, however, has been the economy. Rwanda’s GDP has risen tremendously since the 1994 genocide. In 1994, GDP was about $753 million and has since climbed steadily to a total of about $8 billion in 2016, according to the World Bank. Likewise, gross national income rose from $150 in 1994 to $700 in 2016. While the country is still relatively poor, it boasts one of the world’s fastest-growing economies, averaging annual growth rates of 8 percent since 2000.

While there is plenty of evidence that Rwanda is much better off since Kagame took power, human rights groups say these gains have come at the expense of civil liberties.

“Kagame, the idea he has is if you bring enough prosperity, people won’t care about freedom of speech and free and fair elections,” Timothy Longman, a professor at Boston University who wrote the book “Memory and Justice in Post-Genocide Rwanda,” told The Diplomat.

A lot of Rwanda’s prosperity since Kagame took over has been built on foreign assistance, from corporations such as Starbucks to governments giving money, said Longman. “Forty percent of Rwanda’s budget is paid for by outside donors. They’re dependent on a good public image. They have used it to improve health care and make education more accessible.”

If Kagame enjoys popular support because he has cultivated prosperity, “What happens when the economy takes a hit?” asked Downie. “You can’t deliver this year after year. When people don’t see their lives improving, you might see the response turn violent.”

a4.africa.rwanda.children.storyExperts don’t expect an eruption of violence any time soon in Rwanda, but with Kagame trampling on civil liberties, simmering resentment exists — often along ethnic lines. For instance, Hutus have long complained that they are not able to share power unless they tow Kagame’s party line.

“Under the new constitutional amendment, he could remain in office until 2034, a situation that could force opposition groups, which include Hutus, to resort to violent mobilization to oust him,” John Mukum Mbaku of the Brookings Institution’s Africa Growth Initiative wrote in an email. While this is speculation, it is not a scenario that can be written off, given the history of ethnic bloodletting in the country.

Kenya: A Presidency Up for Grabs

Although Kenya has a history of ballot tampering in elections, experts still call it a democracy, albeit a troubled one.

Kenyatta won the presidency in 2013, beating out Odinga, who had lost previously in the chaotic 2007 election to a different opponent. Odinga's refusal to accept the results of the 2007 election — which many observers did deem flawed — led to atrocities that resulted in about 1,500 deaths, according to the BBC. Kenyatta was also implicated in fomenting the 2007-08 violence. The International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague charged him with crimes against humanity, including murder, rape, persecution and deportation. In 2014, however, the ICC dropped the charges after witnesses failed to come forward.

With polls showing the two frontrunners in a tight contest, there is concern that violence could occur again in this election if the results are challenged. Those concerns were amplified when a top election official in charge of the country's computerized voting system was found tortured and killed in late July. The death of Christopher Msando cast a dark cloud over the integrity of the balloting, with members of Odinga's opposition party alleging that Kenyatta might be seeking to rig the election.

"Some of Odinga's supporters have already stated publicly that unless their candidate wins the presidency, Kenya will see a return to the sectarian violence that enveloped the country after the 2007 presidential election," said Mbaku. "The politicization of ethnicity in Kenya means that regardless of which party wins the election, the loser will see the victory in ethnic terms. The probability that the loser will resort to violent mobilization is quite high. This is especially so if Odinga loses, given his age and the fact that his supporters are likely to see 2017 as their last opportunity in a long time to capture the presidency."

It’s a toss-up who will win the election. “I think it’s too close to make a prediction,” Rebekka Rumpel, a research assistant with the Africa Program at the U.K. think tank Chatham House, told The Diplomat. “The polls have tightened a lot in the last few months. It is a really competitive election.”

a4.africa.kenya.kenyatta.storyAs for Kenyatta’s record as president, the country’s economy has grown during his term. In 2013, Kenya’s GDP was about $55 billion, and in 2016 it was about $70.5 billion, according to the World Bank. This growth has been a continuation of rising GDP for several decades, however, so how much Kenyatta’s leadership plays into it is not certain. Gross national income began to increase significantly in Kenya beginning in the early 2000s, according to World Bank data. In 2013, the year of the last election, gross national income was $1,150, increasing to $1,380 in 2016.

Kenya has positioned itself successfully as a tech hub on the continent and has developed a diversified economy not dependent on oil or other natural resources, said Downie, who pointed out that IBM has a major office there.

“Kenya has cemented its status as the dynamo of the East Africa region economically,” he said. “Kenya has worked hard to portray itself as a business-friendly environment.”

The growing economy has allowed for infrastructure investment, including the new railway between Mombasa and Nairobi, the country’s first new railway in a century. China, which is publicizing its Belt and Road Initiative that offers financing for infrastructure projects around the world, bankrolled the project (also see story in the July 2017 issue).

Possibly putting a damper on economic growth is persistent corruption. Kenya ranks 145 out of 176 countries on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index for 2016.

Keeping security forces in check is another challenge, one that will become more significant in election season as the threat of violence looms if the results are contested.

Going Beyond Ethnicity

Politics is ruled by ethnic factions in Rwanda and Kenya. Some say strongmen like Kagame are needed to keep these still-developing nations from devolving into fractious tribal infighting. Others point out that leaders often manipulate ethnic grievances and disparities to amass power and wealth.

Because individuals identify so strongly with an ethnic group, the concerns of those groups should be taken into account in the political system. But stability must last beyond any particular person, which requires redirecting focus to ideas and ideals instead of ethnic rivalries and loyalties.

a4.africa.kenya.nairobi.story“I am no fan of the strongman approach,” John Campbell, a senior fellow for Africa policy studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, told The Diplomat. “It seems to me that Africa’s primary, and indeed chronic, barrier to development — political, social and economic — has been poor governance, and poor governance is associated with the strongman approach. I very much subscribe to the view that governance in Africa, or any place else, is dependent on institutions grounded in law.”

Kagame employs brutal tactics to maintain his ironclad grip on power, but he did try to push Rwandans to get beyond ethnicity by banning all talk of it. That doesn’t mean people identifying with their ethnicities has gone away.

Kagame has created a self-fulfilling prophecy in which he is Rwanda’s savior, with no alternative. If Kagame is no longer in power, the big question is what will happen to Rwanda. Will ethnic violence break out again? What will be the stabilizing force in a post-Kagame era?

In Kenya, the fight is over which ethnic group, or groups, take control of the government, and observers worry that events could take another deadly turn if there is no clean election and no respect for the ballot or the rule of law.

Without strong governmental institutions that exist beyond personalities and factions, there can be no lasting stability or growth.

“If you secure peace through force, you need more and more resources to sustain that peace,” said Mbaku. “You are preoccupied with trying to control people.”


About the Author

Aileen Torres-Bennett is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.

Last Edited on August 2, 2017

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