Conflict Between Washington and Kigali over Democracy: When Will the African Union Act Against Dictators?

Washington is against a third presidential term for Rwanda’s Paul Kagame. The American authorities make no secret of that position. The secretary of state affirmed this at the end of last week in an issuance that drew the ire of Kigali, as was to be expected. Paul Kagame’s foreign affairs minister noted that Washington recognizes the fact that the decision lies with the Rwandan people.

The United States Is Humiliated by Africa’s Democracy Dunces

Indeed, the United States confirmed all the bad things it thinks about leaders who modify their constitutions to stay in power, which Rwandan officials seem to completely overlook. However, with dictators like Paul Kagame and Pierre Nkurunziza, warnings like this have no effect.

The calls for democracy, for them, are like water off a duck’s back. In sum, the United States is humiliated by Africa’s democracy dunces. This is highly regrettable. However, we should note that the West altogether, and especially the United States, is itself open to criticism. Indeed, these countries demonstrate neither rigor nor consistency in their defense of democratic values. Rather, they navigate, when it comes to dictators, according to the principle by which countries are not friends, but only interests to preserve. It is on behalf of its interests that the West has dealt with many dictators on the continent for a long time. Its procrastination in response to the dictatorships of Nkurunziza, Joseph Kabila and many others has hardly rendered service to the African people.

Countries like France worry mostly about the market losses they would suffer by taking up the cause of the African people at the expense of their oppressors. Faced with these realities, they are prepared to do business with the devil to shelter themselves from Chinese or, more recently, Turkish threats. This means that these calculations limit the great powers’ capacity for action in favor of democracy. These powers only intervene decisively when their own interests are at risk. They are only ready to invoke the duty of humanitarian intervention when it allows them to safeguard their interests. It would therefore be illusory to count on these countries to frankly and boldly lead the struggle for democracy in Africa.

It’s cruel, but it’s understandable. It is thus up to the African people themselves to take responsibility. It is also up to organizations like the African Union to create an environment that is unfavorable to dictators. Will the AU’s prevention and conflict resolution mechanisms ever be operational? When will the AU take action against dictators? Do the relevant provisions regarding the protection and promotion of democracy have a chance of being implemented? These questions need to be asked in view of the AU’s inaction in response to the bad political governance that has created fertile ground for many conflicts in its member countries.

One has only to consider what is happening in Burundi. Even though the African Union commission condemned the government’s unconstitutional change, no sanctions have yet been enacted against the Nkurunziza regime. This impunity is not likely to discourage other sorcerer’s apprentices in the shadows waiting for the right time to fiddle with their fundamental laws. As long as the AU’s institutions and provisions are simply there for decoration, they have no need to worry. It is urgent for the international community to take the bull by the horns in Burundi. The threats to Burundian power should not be taken lightly. It’s especially important to ensure that the Nkurunziza regime does not use the pretext that there are already armed civilians to massacre the populations of hostile neighborhoods.

The African Union Must Fill the Gap Left by Washington

The regime in Bujumbura is not known for its sense of responsibility. And that’s an understatement. It is, therefore, capable of the most ludicrous behaviors as long as they allow the government to keep its place. The legitimacy that the pastor-president has lost does not seem to bother him a bit. He takes a twisted pleasure in slaughtering all Burundians that dare oppose his abuse of power. Of course, the primary responsibility of shattering the hard shell of tyranny lies with the people, as the Burkinabe were able to do in October 2014. However, the psychology of the people is not the same whether you’re in Ouagadougou, Kigali, Kinshasa or Brazzaville. The international community should therefore be much more involved in order to force Bujumbura’s dictator to adhere to the laws of his country and those of the AU pertaining to political governance. It should be the same for other existing or potential tyrants.

The African Union, meanwhile, must fill the gap left by Washington by playing the role of “bogeyman” against autocrats. It has all the legitimacy to do so, particularly via the provisions signed by the countries led by these same tyrants. It cannot afford to disrespect its own provisions. It must, in addition, render its prevention and conflict management mechanisms operational. However, to establish its authority, which it still needs to do internally, the AU requires a strong personality that imposes himself via his charisma and honesty in terms of democracy. It would thus be ideal if the AU commission could enlist the leadership of former heads of state who have proven themselves in terms of good governance, former presidents who know how to tell the truth and speak as equals (for having been heads of state) to all these tyrants addicted to power. Former leaders of the caliber of Alpha Oumar Konaré, the former head of state of Mali, and John Jerry Rawlings of Ghana would do very well for democracy on the continent. In any event, the AU’s silence in response to dictators is objectionable and even shameful. It is up to the AU to change its tune if it wants to be useful to the African people and gain respectability.

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