Election Season: Rwanda, Kenya and Angola
Three August votes highlight three very different democracies
On Friday August 4, Rwandans head to the polls. They will queue at polling stations. They will cast their ballots. At first glance, everything will look like a model example of democracy in action.
But it is a curious democracy where the result is not up for debate. Literally: President Paul Kagame has stifled independent media and sidelined opposition voices so effectively that it is nearly impossible to find anyone in Rwanda who disagrees publicly with his record.
This is less election, more procession; a grand, carefully stage-managed coronation where the only question left to answer is on the size of Kagame’s victory. Will he beat his 2010 tally, when he took home 93% of the vote? Will he score higher than he did in the 2015 referendum, when a staggering 98% of the country voted to amend the Constitution to allow him to run again (and again and again, potentially keeping him in office until 2034)? Or will he prove more popular still than Juvénal Habyarimana, the Rwandan president who was re-elected in 1988 with the backing of 99.8% of the electorate?
The absurdity of Habyarimana’s re-election was thrown into stark, tragic relief just six years later, when up to a million people were killed in the Rwandan genocide. Habyarimana wanted to pretend Rwanda was united behind him, and had massaged the election results accordingly. But in truth he presided over a bitterly divided country on the brink of catastrophe. That 99.8% figure was not an endorsement; it was a warning sign.
Kagame is no Habyarimana, and Rwanda has come a long way since the genocide. There are many reasons Kagame might enjoy genuine popularity: the absence of internal conflict during his tenure; the extraordinary development gains that made Rwanda one of the few countries in the world to meet a majority of millennium development goals (although the accuracy of those figures are coming under increasing scrutiny); and the creation of one of Africa’s fastest-growing economies.
But that doesn’t mean the result of this election — and the scale of Kagame’s anticipated winning margin — can be taken at face value.
“Since the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front took power 23 years ago, Rwandans have faced huge, and often deadly, obstacles to participating in public life and voicing criticism of government policy. The climate in which the upcoming elections take place is the culmination of years of repression,” said Amnesty International’s Muthoni Wanyeki.
Only two opposition candidates have been permitted on the ballot: the Democratic Green Party’s Frank Habineza and independent candidate Philippe Mpayimana. Habineza has complained repeatedly about harassment and intimidation; in 2010, his deputy was killed and Habineza fled into temporary exile.
Other candidates, such as Diane Rwigara, who would have become Rwanda’s first female independent, were left off the ballot after allegedly failing to meet the National Electoral Commission’s requirements, a decision bitterly contested by her.
On Friday, Kagame will, once again, win the vote by a landslide. But given its context, this result cannot be read as an endorsement. Maybe it’s a warning sign
On a superficial level, this year’s election in Kenya is a repeat of the one held in 2013.
It is, once again, a tight, unpredictable contest. It is another face-off between Uhuru Kenyatta, now the incumbent, and perennial challenger Raila Odinga. It is again defined by the politics of ethnicity, and occurs amid fears that the result will be violently contested.
In 2013, those fears were largely misplaced. Kenyatta won narrowly, and Kenya proved that it had matured as a democracy since the unprecedented bloodletting that followed the 2007 vote, in which at least 1 000 people were killed.
But a lot has changed in four years. Despite the superficial similarities with 2013, this election takes place in a different, more dangerous environment.
Most obviously, the violence has already started. Since the beginning of the year, several people have been killed in politically motivated attacks; others have narrowly escaped assassination attempts; there have been violent clashes between supporters of rival political parties. In one especially ominous incident, the body of Chris Msando, a senior official at the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission, was discovered this week. He had been tortured and murdered.
Another major concern is how the institutions designed to protect Kenya’s democracy have been systematically degraded. The integrity of the electoral commission has been repeatedly called into question by the opposition, who claim its rulings have favoured the government. At the same time, the president’s supporters have accused the judiciary of bias towards the opposition.
In the run-up to the vote, journalists have been arrested, harassed and intimidated, compromising their ability to act as an independent watchdog. Pressure on civil society is so bad that the United Nations called on the Kenyan government to halt the “systematic and deliberate pattern to crack down on civil society groups which challenge governmental policies, educate voters, investigate human rights abuses and uncover corruption”.
The electoral dynamics have shifted too. Kenya’s 2010 Constitution provided for the “devolution” of some powers from national to local governments, resulting in a large increase in the number and importance of local government posts. When Kenyans choose their president on Tuesday, they will also vote on who gets to occupy these powerful — and potentially lucrative — positions.
This last point is key, and may explain why, despite all these problems, Kenya is unlikely to witness a repeat of the bloodletting in 2007 and 2008.
“Despite an increase in volatility compared to 2013, it is still likely that 2017’s race will be more like its predecessor than 2007. Although the behaviour of politicians during and after the poll will be key, my view is still that protests are more likely to occur through the courts than the streets,” said Ronak Gopaldas, head of country risk at Rand Merchant Bank. “Although there could be a number of flashpoints, sporadic localised violence rather than countrywide unrest is more of a concern.”
The latest — albeit not especially reliable — opinion polls suggest that neither Kenyatta nor Odinga have enough support to win the election outright. This will force a runoff election in September — and another few weeks of anxious anticipation.
The list of Angolan heads of state is short. There are just two entries. The first is Agostinho Neto, who served just one term following Angola’s independence in 1975. The second is José Eduardo dos Santos, who took office in 1979 and has clung grimly on to power ever since.
This election is likely to add a third name to that list. Although the ruling MPLA is almost certain to win a majority of seats in Parliament, allowing it to select the president, it won’t be Dos Santos again.
The president is leaving on his own terms. To the surprise of most observers, Dos Santos — in many ways the archetypal African president-for-life — has said he will step down immediately after the vote.
He has even appointed a successor: João Lourenço, his minister of defence, who has been touring the country promising to bring peace, democracy and reconciliation.
At the very top, at least, change is coming to Angola. But will anything else change?
Although Dos Santos has spent much of this year in poor health, shuttling between Luanda and a private clinic in Barcelona, he has also been making meticulous plans for the transition.
Lourenço is a loyal ally. Dos Santos’s children have been put in charge of Angola’s purse strings: daughter Isabel is the boss of the state oil firm Sonangol and son José Filomeno manages the $4.8-billion sovereign wealth fund. Legislation has been tabled that will give the president lifelong immunity from prosecution.
Crucially, Dos Santos will remain in charge of the MPLA. Given its majority in Parliament, the party is where many of the decisions on Angola’s future are actually made. Dos Santos, even if he’s no longer occupying the presidential palace, will still be leading those decisions.
Despite Dos Santos’s precautions, this is still new and unsettling territory for the MPLA. No one seriously thinks it could lose the popular vote, but opposition parties will be hoping to rock the establishment by putting a serious dent in its overwhelming electoral dominance. The ruling party won with more than 80% in 2008, and then 72% in 2012. How will it react to another significant drop in support? Especially given the country’s other economic and political woes, which will play into the hands of Unita, the main opposition party.
“The electoral process and imminent departure of Dos Santos could provide a flashpoint for urban youth disenchanted with the MPLA regime, or those fighting for an independent Cabinda under the banner of Frente para a Libertação do Enclave de Cabinda,” said Lucia Kula of the Africa Research Institute. “With government debt estimated at 75% of GDP [gross domestic product] and the national budget under pressure as the result of low crude prices, the funds available for patronage politics are not what they once were.”
Perhaps Dos Santos, one of the wiliest political operators around, is getting out of the hot seat just in time.
A month ago, Chris Msando publicly assured Kenyans — and the rest of us who live here — that on his watch the election would not be rigged. Msando was murdered this week. He was the information and communication manager for the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission.
His body was found on Monday, with one limb missing and bearing signs of torture. Although we don’t know who killed Msando, and probably won’t before the vote on Tuesday, his death has fuelled fears that Kenya is heading into a dangerous and volatile period; a repeat of the ethnic violence that followed the 2007 poll.
Nairobi’s residents are taking precautions. Many parents have taken their children upcountry, as Kenyans refer to their village homes, where they feel it is safer. My expatriate friends are no different. Most have chosen to take their holidays in their home countries and have left or are leaving within the next few days.
For those of us planning to stay in the city, we too have prepared, just in case things go wrong. We’ve stocked up on gas, candles and canned foods. Equally important, aware of how communications were interrupted during the Ugandan elections, many of us have downloaded virtual private networks so we can be in touch with loved ones. And we are ensuring we have power banks charged in case of power outages.
I have often said to my Kenyan friends that ethnicity is to Kenyans what race is to South Africans. People talk about it a lot, but it’s not always the most accurate lens.
During last year’s municipal elections in South Africa, many black people in the metropolitans seemed to have ignored the often repeated mantra that the Democratic Alliance is a party serving white interests.
Similarly in Kenya in 2017, the tensions between the incumbent Uhuru Kenyatta’s Kikuyu ethnic group and the opposition leader Raila Odinga’s Luo are a little less palpable than they were in 2013.
Equally, there is no guarantee that the Kalenjin, who belong to the same ethnic community as Deputy President William Ruto, will stand firmly with the governing party — especially given that another leading Kalenjin politician, Bomet Governor Isaac Ruto, decamped to the opposition coalition.
What is clear though is that voices of reason across ethnic groups seem to agree that they would like free and fair elections and will not, as happened in 2013, “accept and move on” if there are any electoral irregularities.
In 2013, when the shock of the post-election violence of the 2007 elections was still fresh, the national focus seemed to be on maintaining peace.
This time around conversations with friends suggest that the absence of all-out war may not necessarily be peace. A statement that I hear often is that citizens are like donkeys, and take a lot of unnecessary abuse from politicians.
But as I walked from the supermarket one afternoon, I heard one young man yelling to another: “Punde amechoka” — the donkeys are tired.
There is one South African in Nairobi who should be doing more to dispel this general sense of unease that permeates Kenya.
But at the time of writing, Thabo “There is no crisis in Zimbabwe” Mbeki has said nothing about Msando’s death. Mbeki is the head
of the African Union election observer mission to Kenya, but his silence is ominous: Just how bad must things get before he and the AU find their voice?