One does not need to be a dictator to do the right thing

Prof Makau Mutua’s Sunday Standard column titled “Love him or hate him, Kagame could be Africa’s Lew Kwan (sic) Yew,” is revealing. For one thing, it’s perplexing that Prof Mutua doesn’t believe he can make his point without throwing his friend under the bus, “I don’t give a flying fig about so-called benevolent dictators, although my dear friend Donald Kipkorir, the estimable lawyer, seems to love them.”  It is an amoral point of departure that implicitly calls into question Mr Kipkorir’s intellect as someone who is at once an “estimable lawyer” but unable to measure up to Makau’s intellectual prowess because the former “seems to love” dictators. This is someone he patronisingly refers to as “my dear friend.”

What’s even more bizarre is how Mutua, a university professor, takes a serious subject and treats it casually in the hope that his reference to Harvard University is a sufficient substitute for credibility and rigour. What’s clear is that Mutua is part of that African “intellectual breed” that doesn’t believe in Africa. He doesn’t believe an African country can craft democracy and development outside a foreign yardstick, the reference point to his analysis. 

Mutua is not conscious of the relevance of context. Consider his view on the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda that claimed over a million people in three months. While he acknowledges that, “rarely has there been such an intense genocide in human history” his subsequent analysis assumes everything after that catalysmic event should happen smoothly and without a sense of conviction and undeterred determination. 

Similarly, his preoccupation with the reference point of “benevolent dictatorship” blinds him to the possibility that institutions do exist in Rwanda – regardless of his view of their adherence to his preferred reference point. Because the gaze won’t allow him, Mutua doesn’t recognise that he makes a strong case against himself. In fact, the case he makes against himself is the most congent of his entire article. Apartheid did not bring development to the people of South Africa. It never built homes for the poor. Neither did it offer free education and health insurance to all. 

Elsewhere, Mutua waddles into NGO-hyped incidents to deny what he has acknowledged. For instance, the idea something is wrong with Rwanda because it’s streets are clean, “There’s no litter in the streets, the sort you see everywhere in Nairobi,” he writes rather dismissively as if co-existing with filth is the preserve of Africans, one they should wear as a badge of honour; he chides Kagame who “has been credited with stamping out corruption, creating infrastructure, reviving the economy, and attracting foreign direct investment.” Sounds like issues that any serious presidential candidate would wish to identify with.

But Mutua has his own inspirational figure in mind: Ms Diane Rwigara, who he thinks should be a political opponent with impunity from judicial processes when in reality she is a fanatic who has largely been ignored by the Rwandan populace, much as what likely awaits Mutua as he ventures into electoral politics. Methinks so – at least that’s what my crystal-ball tells me.

But I will give him some advice – albeit unsolicited. If he believes democracy and term-limits are all Kenyans need, then he shouldn’t be running at all because Kenyans already have these.

However, if he believes there is systemic institutional failure, corruption, and tribalism that require strong leadership, then he may need to revisit his premise.

In 2007, it was not the election cycle that saved Kenya from anarchy; on the contrary, it set the stage. Neither did it help two years ago when the country’s seams came undone. Makau would have to be vain – irredeemably obsessive, narcissistic, messianic – to ignore all this and remain thinking that civil-society activism is the same thing as the practical management of society. 

Finally, if he were to allow himself introspection freed from the captivity of the foreign gaze, then Mutua would discover that his potential contribution to Kenya – beyond catchphrases – is a governance model that builds dialogue and inclusiveness in society. It is a governance model that recognises that one does not need to be a dictator to do the right thing, to ensure your nation’s laws are respected and imposed on those who may think laws should only be suggestions where they themselves are concerned.

- The writer is an independent researcher in Kigali.