Jonathan R. Beloff
Researcher of the African Great Lakes

The Importance of Elections and Respect for Rwandans

I grew up in a very politically-minded household. My mother and grandparents discussed the political situation with me at international, domestic and neighborhood levels. At a very young age I was asked to think about what was going on around me and verbalize my opinions about how we – whether as individuals, a nation or humanity – should and must help. Political consensus in my family was rare as everyone held different political beliefs. I remember most vividly that my grandmother held Democratic beliefs, as she was a proud public sector (teacher) union member. She believed that government was the answer to many of the problems of society. My mother saw herself as a moderate, believing in small local government and individual responsibility. Lastly, my grandfather always seemed a bit of an enigma. He seemed to hold the views held by Democrats more than by Republicans. But calling him a Democrat like my grandmother would not properly describe his political views.

On the way home from primary and secondary school, my grandfather often would pick me up and give me political and current event magazines and instruct me to read them during the ride. When we got home, he would make some tomato soup and we would discuss what he had given me to read. This continued after dinner with hours of conversations on the political make-up of New Jersey, United States and international affairs.

The one political belief that everyone in my family shared was the importance of voting for the best candidate for the issues. It did not matter which political party they came from, we voted on the best person rather than the political party. The several times I stood with my grandmother in the voting booth, I never saw her voting down the line of Democratic candidates. She voted for most of them, but also voted for Republicans she thought would best serve her interests and the wishes of the population.

I continue to uphold these beliefs by voting for whomsoever I think would best serve the office, whether they be Republican or Democrat. This also brought me to see other elections around the world through the lenses of what the people in those countries want. I fully do accept that many elections are corrupt with multiple problems that make votes more of a showcase for democracy rather than its actual practice.

Rwanda recently held a nationwide vote on changing the current 2003 Constitution with respect to term limits and lengths for the Presidency. Article 101 of the Constitution instructed that a person could hold the Presidency for a maximum of two terms of seven years each. The new referendum vote changes both the lengths and number of terms. A candidate can win one seven-year term and then be elected for two additional terms of five years each. In terms of how this affects the current political situation in Rwanda, current President Paul Kagame can remain President until 2034. He has been serving as President since 2000, with his first election held in 2003 followed by re-election in 2010.

Most of the international community along with human rights institutions expressed many concerns about the referendum. The first concern was that the referendum was conducted within such a short time-span that most Rwandans could not properly debate on whether term allotments should change. The second concern was that Rwandans did not have the ability to choose what they wanted as the political system intimidates them into supporting the current government and leadership.

The last concern was that President Kagame is threatening his legacy, namely that of a man who ended the 1994 Rwandan genocide (also known as the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi) and rebuilt the nation, by allowing the change in the Constitution and potentially becoming a virtual dictator. These concerns come from people who have a genuine interest and desire to see Rwanda continue to develop and not re-enter the cycle of dictatorship and genocide.

Despite the well-intentioned concerns by many in the international community, they must realize that this debate about whether President Kagame should continue to hold the office of President began years ago. Rwandans have more of an open space than is often described to decide what they think is best for their country’s future. Since my first trip to Rwanda in 2008, Rwandans have been relatively open about how they view their government and the leadership of their President. Many see their lives as being better now compared to the past and they predict it will continue to be better for them, and more importantly for their children, under the leadership of Kagame.

Just as my family votes for the person who they think best represents their interests in the voting booth, Rwandans have decided that Kagame represents their goals and desires. The lack of a strong domestic political opposition against Kagame stems a lot from the fact that Rwandans are satisfied with his leadership. They do not all agree with everything the government has done. But they see the positive steps towards economic and social development and they believe this will only continue with President Kagame staying in power.

One Rwandan commented to me about why he voted for Kagame in 2010 rather than other candidates: “Look at what he (Kagame) has done for this country since he became President in 2000. We are better off now than before. Why would we change to someone else when we do not know how they will be if things are going well now?” Some (mostly outside Rwanda) disagree with the degree to which Kagame’s accomplishments should be understood positively, but Rwandans themselves hold a view of their government and leader that should be respected by all. Just like how I vote in elections, Rwandans voted overwhelmingly for the issue and the person they believe in.

About the Author
Jonathan R. Beloff, PhD, is a researcher focusing on the regional politics and security of the African Great Lakes composing the nations of Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. I have published several academic journal articles, book chapters, book reviews and editorials on issues facing central Africa. Since 2008, my travels to the region have led me to work and consult with numerous Rwandan and international government officials. Within these periods of foreign residence, with particular reference to my multiple extended stays in Rwanda, I developed unique skills to engage and consult with a range of different foreign officials as well as Rwandan elites and policymakers in the understanding and formation of public policy.
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