KAYUMBA: Elections campaigns in EA teach us Africa’s secret to development

It’s election season in East Africa. Besides parliamentary — and in some cases local — elections, presidential politicking is in high gear in Burundi, Tanzania, Uganda and Rwanda with Kenya not far on the calendar.

While still marred in political violence and contested poll dates, Burundi hopes to hold presidential elections next month, Tanzania in October, Uganda in February 2016 and Rwanda and Kenya in 2017.

Than at any other time in the life of these nations, or indeed any other, this is the season when the best or worst in us tends to come to the fore.

For it is during this period that optimists look out for a possible philosopher-King (or even Saviour) to emerge, eloquently announce the candidature and wisely tell the nation what its ailments are and how heshe intends to cure them once elected. But this is also, in the same measure, the season when the most trickery and power-hungry among us deploy all manner of tricks to gain a seat at the summit of power.

This makes this season more like a laboratory for socio-political scientists to study with the objective of telling us what to expect in the days, months and years ahead.

Beyond this futuristic approach, however, this is also the season that can, with the benefit of historical hindsight, tell us why Africa remains poor, sickly and powerless despite a good agriculture-friendly climate and abundant natural resources.

Put simply, an objective observation of the goings-on in these countries reveals that, despite contrary arguments, Africa’s problem remains political, not developmental. Let’s illustrate, starting with Burundi.

Just over a decade ago, Burundi was bleeding from a civil war brought about by the murder of a democratically elected president.

After learning from the cruelty of war, protagonists agreed to talk laying down rules that spell out how one gains access to the highest office in the land. Now, one of the men who witnessed the folly of war and one of the negotiators of post-war political dispensation in Burundi, President Pierre Nkurunziza, is subverting the same rules to remain in power!

While I don’t know what power does to individuals or what a man gains from remaining in the highest office on the blood of tens of his fellow citizens, I do know that Burundi can’t be at peace or develop unless its leaders respect the rules of the political game.

And while Burundi looks worse, its ills aren’t very different from what afflicts Uganda — although leaders in the latter case tend to act smatter. Uganda’s leader of 29 years, Yoweri Museveni, has been president since 1986 following a successful armed struggle but wants to remain in the seat.

A few months ago, members of the ruling party, the National Resistance Movement (NRM), announced Museveni as their sole candidate. Despite this “generosity,” he went ahead to sack his prime minister and party secretary-general, Amama Mbabazi, on suspicion that the latter was interested in his seat!

Not dented by the sacking, Mbabazi recently announced his presidential bid but was immediately accused of “indiscipline” and acting “prematurely” by the same man who had sacked him!

But that isn’t what’s interesting here. What’s seminal is that, across the country, Mbabazi’s supporters are being rounded up by the police and imprisoned just for expressing support and distributing his campaign materials.

Those who know Uganda’s political culture counsel Mbabazi to brace for worse since police brutality, including daytime beatings of dissenting politicians, has been the way the opposition is managed since the return of multiparty politics in 2001.

That the nation’s security personnel can be deployed to harass the people they are supposed to protect tells us why we are still poor and what we need to do to develop.

Yet, even where beatings are minimal, like in Tanzania, you hear a presidential candidate — no less than a former prime minister, Edward Lowassa — promising that if elected he will help his country to “overtake” Uganda, Kenya and Rwanda in development!

Considering that Tanzania is the biggest EAC state, the most mineral-endowed whose budget is thrice that of Rwanda, you start appreciating the value of visionary leadership.

To develop therefore, we need to renounce political violence as a means to power, decriminalise the opposition and dissent, divorce State affairs from political party and individual issues and…dream big.

Dr Christopher Kayumba, PhD, is a senior lecturer at the School of Journalism, the University of Rwanda, and managing consultant at MGC Consult. E-mail: kkkayumba@yahoo.com Twitter: @CKayumba