On human rights erosion, the West is innocent

Rwanda President Paul Kagame when he was received at State House, Nairobi for the 3rd EAC Heads of State Conclave on Inter-Congolese Dialogue of the Nairobi Process. [PSCU, Standard]

Whichever way you look at him, President Paul Kagame of Rwanda is a man for all seasons, admired for his wit and deeds. The man has been president for 20 years and has tightened his grip on power.

He led his country into a powerful renaissance after the genocide of 1994. He is soft-spoken but has a knack for fiery creeds against Europe, the US and the international press, which he accuses of hypocrisy.

Kagame often claims the West looks down upon Africa and is determined to force its ideals down the continent’s throat. In his ideal world, Africa must be allowed its space even if it soils itself.

Last week, he was at it again during the 2022 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Kigali. Asked to clarify his priorities on basic rights and democracy, Kagame’s response was condescending.

“Those from the North who think they are the face of values and the rest have to follow is a big mistake. We have values here in Africa and Rwanda,” he said.

Truth is, Kagame is no ordinary leader. You can take this to the bank. Some have termed him a benevolent dictator. But having been to Kigali and seen firsthand the transformation, the Rwanda Patriotic Front leader is a cut above the rest.

Unfortunately, though, he gradually represents a class of African leaders bitten by the big man syndrome and who have turned the West into a punching bag for no coherent reason.

While we may be naturally coy about what ails us, good leaders – at the very least – admit mistakes, learn from them and make amends.

Rwanda has a delicate past, admittedly. And like other presidents, Kagame knows best what works for him. However, he must not necessarily be defensive when human rights are discussed. It is foolhardy to prefer peace, order and economic growth while turning a deaf ear to the quest for justice.

Kagame and his ilk, I believe, should set the record straight. Accusations hang on his head. He must take responsibility and explain himself in detail rather than be a defensive ‘scapegoater.’  

Some bigwigs have taken a wrecking ball to the finest African norms and values yet they chide other countries for checkmating them. They overlook the fact that once they leave office, they will need the rights they now abhor to the core.

According to the Council of Europe, human rights are like armour: they protect you; they are like rules, because they tell you how you can behave; and they are like judges, because you can appeal to them. They are abstract – like emotions; and like emotions, they belong to everyone and they exist no matter what happens.

From constricted political space to arbitrary detentions, drummed-up charges, general ill-treatment to torture of government critics, many African countries have seen it all. Strongmen have taken away Africans’ right to speak through the ballot.

Kizza Besigye, the Ugandan opposition politician sums it up that Africa has two sorts of people - the oppressors and the oppressed. The oppressors tout power and love sparring with imaginary enemies to cover failures. That’s not how great leaders operate.

Many political leaders are out of sync with reality. Driven by a pathological thirst for power, they do not want to pay the price that comes with social, political and economic transition. Theirs is to smash critics and stifle social equality.

In Kenya, the killing of Baby Pendo is stark reminder of what impunity can do. When we disregard a fundamental right such as the right to life in the name of political competition, we must be ashamed of ourselves.

The writer is an editor at The Standard. Twitter:@markoloo