Tshepo Ricki Kgositau
Rwanda’s Paul Kagame is unequivocally in that same whatsapp group and boys’ club to which Ian Khama and the late Robert Mugabe and Joseph Kabila belong to as founding members
I have just returned from Kigali, Rwanda where I attended the International Conference on AIDS & STIs in Africa (ICASA), which is the largest HIV conference on the continent said to have had over 10 000 participants this year.
As the president of Rwanda since 1994, Paul Kagame is highly celebrated for having got the country out of the ruins of genocide and developing it into the modern-day growing African economy that it is. Under Kagame’s rule, the Rwandan Parliament comprises 61% women, making it the highest the world over. Rwanda has signed a three-year deal with Arsenal FC on a sponsorship and tourism agreement that will see the team wear a kit with the slogan “Visit Rwanda” on the sleeves of the players’ shirts of the first, Under-23 and women’s teams. Kagame has also built the Kigali Arena, Africa’s largest indoor stadia that is set to host the 2021 FIBA, the Africa Basketball Championships, and is said to have brokered a deal with the NBA in the US for use of the Arena in growing basketball to the level of the NBA in Africa.
I went to the ICASA conference apprehensive of going to the land of what I call a “functional dictator” as I do not mince my words when it comes to them. What I had not envisaged was to see the throngs of Kagame supporters even in the development and human rights sector, as well as greater civil society, inclusive of the HIV movement. It is at this ICASA that I had a brief debate with a youth advocate whom I respect so much and who is actually a Paul Kagame supporter for the wonderful things he has done, more so on the economic growth and health related developments of Rwanda.
But to celebrate Kagame and put him on a pedestal is to celebrate Robert Mugabe or Makufuli, and dare I say it would be the same as celebrating Hitler. To do so shows us how low our standards of what equals model leadership on the African continent have gone. Some say Africa is not unique as there are so many like Kagame, if not worse, around the globe. An immediate on that long list is America’s Donald Trump, as are North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, and Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Regardless of a quarter of the world being ruled by these unaccountable men, we cannot just accept that things are as they are and there is nothing we can say or do about them.
This is exactly Sibongile Ndashe’s wake-up call to civil society in her keynote address at the recent Accountability Pre-Conference before the ICASA conference, convened by the organisation for which I am Executive Director, Accountability International. Sibongile says one of the indicators of a depoliticised civil society is pragmatism, which is defined as the feeling and attitude that we can only do what is doable and retire to the belief that there is nothing we can do to change things. Many of us as civic leaders and citizens have been pacified by the growing and persisting ‘boys’ club’ that keeps passing the torch between itself and initiating more members who are unable to hold each other accountable. Of course, we are cognisant of the fact that in most contexts of these autocratic and authoritarian states, speaking up and out against these dictators risks their very life of the one who does, which is the daily reality of many of us who are front-line human rights defenders. However, we cannot retire to accepting that this is the leadership we have and that there might not be anything we can do to remove them, or worse, celebrate them for a select few achievements.
As Accountability International, we have recently conferred the 2019 Accountability International Leadership Award (AILA) on Dr. Stellah Bosire, who is a co-Executive Director of a civil society-led funding institution in Kenya called UHAI-EASHRI. The independent AILA Committee sifted through hundreds of peer-nominations and used our scorecard grading methodology to ultimately shortlist the Top 10 that in it had some incredible Batswana young leaders such as Mona-Lisa Mungure and my editor Lawrence Seretse.
When I apply our A to E scorecard grading to a president like Paul Kagame across a few key indicators such as economic growth, health systems and financing, state of human rights, democratic governance, education, gender equality, corruption and citizen happiness and wellbeing index, he of course will score an A on economic development and growth, given his sharp business eye. He scores another A on health financing where Rwanda’s HIV domestic financing has seen its national response recording 2.5% HIV prevalence out of a population of 12 million with 94% of all persons having tested positive for HIV enrolled on sustained antiretroviral therapy (ART). This makes Rwanda a model state for countries aspiring to meet the 90-90-90 target to end HIV & AIDS by 2030, much as it has somewhat set the bar for countries aiming to have no less than 50% of women representation in parliament of which Rwanda’s is 61%.
But we must ask ourselves whether this women representation is qualitative or just quantitative, just to tick the box. Kagame continues to romance amendment of the constitution to buy himself the opportunity to continue ‘running for office,’ which has obviously been openly criticised by his opposition. The leadership from his opposition continues to die and go missing under precarious and highly questionable circumstances, as seen with the recent death by stabbing in September of politician Sylidio Dusabumuremyi of the Forces Democratiques Unifiees also known as FDU-Inkingi party. In July, another member of this FDU-Inkingi called Eugene Nderemiyana from eastern Rwanda disappeared and is yet to be found, while in March the spokesperson of the same party was found mysteriously dead in the forest of western Rwanda. When civic freedoms and liberties are sacrificed for the sustenance of leaders who are seen to be progressive and visionary in certain aspects, we cannot put such leaders on a pedestal and they certainly cannot and should not be the gold standard by which we measure the quality of African leadership.
Kagame is the former African Union (AU) Chairperson from 2018. Part of his legacy as the AU Chair is the March 2018 signing of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) agreement creating a single African market that will equally ease the mobility of people across the continent, a benefit for over 1.2 billion people across the continent where intra-Africa trade is to grow and the African youth unemployment epidemic will be significantly tackled.
Kagame has since this year handed that baton of the AU Chairpersonship to Abdel Fattah al-Sisi of Egypt. In October, a communique from the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, written by former President of Chile Michelle Bachelet, who is now the Commissioner, asked el-Sisi and his government to release over 2000 civil society leaders and activists who were arrested during anti-government protests in September. These are the successions of leadership at the Pan-African level that charges citizens with acts of terrorism for exercising their right to express their views, as well as freedom of assembly and association, and subjects them to inhumane, degrading and torturous treatment when they do not see eye to eye with the government of the day. The quality of any democratic governance is measured by the independence and sharpness of its opposition to act as its checks and balances. Any suffocation or killing of political leadership equals lack of democracy and certainly showcases dictatorial, autocratic and authoritarian rule. That is what el-Sisi is, what Museveni is, and exactly what Makufuli is. Kagame is unequivocally in that same whatsapp group, the same club to which Ian Khama and the late Robert Mugabe and Joseph Kabila belong to as founding members.
The impact of these dictators is not only localised to their countries because at the continental level, we are all impacted for the reason that they influence continental policy instruments, control civic engagement spaces and carry authority as the Executive Council of the AU over the African Union Commission, which is meant to be the independent body charged with protection and proliferation of the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights. This power has been abused and continues to be manipulated by this club of dictators who have now eroded the independence of the AU Commission. We see this in how Pan-African NGOs such as the Coalition of African Lesbians (CAL), which was granted AU observer status in 2015 in recognition of the value of the diversity of civil society in holding leaders accountable at the continental level, was revoked. This happened when the AU Executive Council forced the hand of the AU Commission to withdraw this status in 2018. Paul Kagame was the Chairperson of the African Union when this regressive and atrocious decision was taken in 2018 solely because CAL belongs to the LGBTI sector. The action cemented their growing dictatorial leadership even at the level of our continental human rights bodies.
My fear and sadness for this resource-rich continent of ours is that people like Paul Kagame have disillusioned young leaders, social justice and human rights advocates to see them as figures that our other African leaders should model themselves around. I am truly worried for the future of this continent when “functional dictators” can be celebrated. We cannot afford to have an ‘at least he does this or does not do that’ on this matter in the same way that we cannot stand an emotional or psychological abuser as much as we cannot tolerate a physical abuser. We teach everyone to speak out against all forms of abuse indiscriminately, which is the message in these 16 days of activism against and for no violence against women and girls where we say No to all violence without saying ‘at least he does not lay a hand on you.’ In that same breath, we cannot have any room for accommodating dictators like Kagame just because at least they have grown economies or put more national budgeting into strengthening health systems. What are the criteria of model leadership? Put on a queer eye in seeking the answers to this single question and you will agree with me that our standards have been lowered by this boys’ club – Africa has been recaptured by her own.
*Tshepo Ricki Kgositau is a seasoned human rights advocate, researcher, trans personality, feminist, sexual & reproductive health rights specialist, Pan-Africanist, fashion designer, social entrepreneur, gender diversity & equity specialist, LGBTIQAP++ activist, queer theology scholar, motivational speaker and columnist.