As Rwanda, Kenya Head to the Polls, East Africa Watches with Bated Breath 

The long-awaited is here! The two East African nations of Rwanda and Kenya go to the polls this August. Rwanda will take the first bite at the cherry on August 3 and 4, while the latter will have their turn on August 8.

First to Rwanda. Although the results of the coming poll are considered fait accompli (in favour of the incumbent) by several observers, and the exercise altogether deemed a “boring” affair – what with the lack of adversarial flair many have come to associate with electoral politics in Africa – the campaigns have taken on a life of their own online.

First with a series of articles in the Economist that seemed to suggest a “climate of fear” in the lead up to polls (see another equally fallacious one in the Washington Post, here).

The response from the Rwandan online community couldn’t have been more timely. In classic wordplay, “climate of fear” morphed into a twitter hashtag #ClimateOfCheer displaying the festive mood at most of President Kagame’s rallies, that could be mistaken for carnivals!

It is an interesting time to be an observer of affairs in Kigali this season. On the streets of the capital one cannot miss the near-festive mood: public transport cars are draped in red, blue and white – colours of the FPR Inkontanyi – flags. T-shirts bearing the incumbent’s image are on sale at the street corner, including, interestingly, in the new Mr Price outlet at Kigali Heights. Beyond the presidential aspirant, there seems to be Paul Kagame (PK) the fashion icon. At a bar we went to with friends one evening I could count up to 10 people – from waiters to patrons – donning PK-inspired t-shirts and caps.

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PK the fashion icon? One of the many Kagame-inspired T-shirts on sale in Kigali

While this would seem to vindicate the Economist’s lazy attempt at explaining the “brand Kagame” phenomenon, you only need to walk the Kigali streets a little longer to be disabused of the notion.

Frank Habineza, of the Green Party, and Philippe Mpayimana, an independent candidate who once dabbled in journalism in the 1990s, are the other aspirants in the race for president. Woe unto them, you’d say. While their campaigns have not seen even a fraction of the numbers at RPF rallies, save for a number of school children and curious bystanders, they nonetheless stand a chance in the next government thanks to Rwanda’s constitution that ensures that the winner of the August 4 polls does not take more than 50% of cabinet positions.

A far cry from Uganda and Kenya’s first-past-the-post, winner-take-all system, Rwanda’s consensual politics could help explain the “boring” nature of Rwanda’s campaigns. You cannot tell your opponent to – borrowing from close to home – eat their mother’s something something… because you will have to serve with them in the same government.

Now to Kenya: the chilly July Nairobi weather can best explain the goings-on in East Africa’s biggest economy. News this afternoon of discovery of the body of Chris Msando, Director of ICT at the national electoral body (IEBC), who went missing last Friday sent chills down many spines. Kenya could yet head back to the senseless violence it witnessed in 2007, many observers suggest.

One such observer is a Ugandan journalist friend who I met in the Kenya capital late last year. He notes that, without exception, every Kenyan election in which an incumbent has been on the ballot has been characterized by violence: 1992, 1997, 2007, and, he hoped not, 2017.

The signs coming out of Nairobi seem to vindicate him for now, but we pray for better. A report in the regional East African newspaper this week noted concerns by Kenyan manufacturers about uncertainty ahead of the August 8 poll, and many have had to withhold major investments for the next 12 months. This has serious implications on the country’s economy alongside that of her neighbours.

Already billed as one of the most expensive elections on the continent, neighbours like Uganda will want to take lessons from the Kenyan polls for pointers on what the future holds if cut-throat confrontational electoral politics is not checked.

And here is where Rwanda’s example comes in: consensual, as opposed to confrontational, electoral competition will deliver us to Canaan faster than bloodletting!

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This past weekend I was in serene Jinja for a friend’s wedding, believe it or not, the first time I’ve stayed in the town for longer than a day! It was a good experience. While the town’s heydays seem to be in the distant past, there are signs a new dawn is approaching. Driven largely by local tourism.

At the Sailing Club, as we downed a few beers, I had an interesting chat with one of the groomsmen — the Oxford – JP Morgan – Columbia MBA type — about fortunes here and abroad. Tell you what, brace yourselves for the coming wave. The American, European, now Asian, ship is losing steam fast and the growth winds will soon blow south…but we need to get our African house in order first.

All the best in your marriage, Leo and Esther!