The German philosopher Georg Hegel observed that “the only thing that we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history.” His Spanish-American counterpart, George Santayana, similarly observed that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
That is exactly what I thought when I heard the statements of Rwanda’s strongman General Paul Kagame on January 9, 2023. Addressing members of his regime in parliament, the General was chest-thumping, declaring that “we are as solid as a rock.” Kagame delivered his speech basking in adulation, cheered on by thunderous applauses from his regime’s officials.
And that is precisely Hegel’s and Santayana’s point. We have seen this before. Gushing with bravado, General Kagame exhibited the same delusions of grandeur as his predecessor, General Juvénal Habyarimana, who ruled Rwanda from 1973 until 1994. Habyarimana, too, loved to blow his own trumpet. He famously branded himself “Kinani”, a Kinyarwanda word meaning “invincible.” During his rule, Habyarimana’s ruling party enforcers made people chant and dance in adulation of the strongman at mass pageants of political “animation”.
We know, of course, that General Habyarimana was not invincible. No authoritarian ruler ever is. Mahatma Gandhi put it best when he observed that “there have been tyrants and murderers, and for a time, they can seem invincible, but in the end, they always fall.” Habyarimana fell from power the same way he had seized it from his predecessor, Grégoire Kayibanda, in a coup d’état. After overthrowing Kayibanda in 1973, Habyarimana became the country’s new dictator, continuing Kayibanda’s electoral fraud in which Habyarimana “won” presidential elections by 98.99% in 1978, 99.97% in 1983, and 99.98% in 1988.
So now, here we are in 2023 with General Kagame declaring that his regime is “as solid as a rock,” a phrase that provoked thunderous applause from his government officials. Meanwhile, like his predecessors, Kagame’s electoral fraud results in absurd presidential elections.
In his 2017 elections, for example, General Kagame “won” by 99%, following the amendments to the Rwandan constitution which allowed him to stay in power after his second and final term ended. In effect, this manoeuvre empowered him to stand for another term of seven years, and two more after that of five each – meaning that the General could stay in power until 2034.
And as if that wasn’t enough, Kagame granted himself lifetime immunity from criminal prosecution, even for the worst crimes. Article 114 of the 2015 Rwandan constitution reads as follows:
“A former President of the Republic cannot be prosecuted for treason or serious and deliberate violation of the Constitution when no legal proceedings in respect of that offence were brought against him or her while in office.”
Passing such a law amounts to confessing to being a criminal – but even worse, this law illustrates a more astonishing failure to learn from history. The effectiveness of such laws in totalitarian states is dubious at best. The General ought to know that during the change of political regimes or coups d’etat, as a rule, nobody obeys laws, including the constitution.
I end this writing as I began with Hegel’s words: “The only thing that we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history.” In our case, failure to learn from history has meant that each new strongman comes to power violently. Orderly transfer of power free of coups or civil wars remains a distant dream in Rwanda. Stay tuned.