-Analysis-

“[If] I have been unable to mentor a successor or successors that should be the reason I should not continue as president. It means that I have not created capacity for a post-me Rwanda. I see this as a personal failure.”

These words were uttered by none other than Rwandan President Paul Kagame in 2012. Five years later, it’s a telling admission as Kagame — who has been in power for 17 years — won elections again, this time with 98.63% of the vote. Only two individuals were allowed to contest the elections, and they were only permitted to campaign the week before the vote. These astounding limitations aren’t actually surprising: Kagame had already declared the August election “a formality”. Rwandans had also previously voted in favor of amending the constitution on incumbents standing for re-election. That means that Kagame, 59, will be in office until at least 2024, and could potentially rule until 2034.

Another East African country, Kenya, is about to face elections tomorrow. Incumbent President Uhuru Kenyatta is facing challenger Raila Odinga. As it has in the past, the campaign has centered around ethnic identity. More problematic, however, is the climate of suspicion that surrounds the election, with fears that vote-rigging could trigger violence similar to that in the wake of the 2007 election, when more than 1,400 people were killed.

These factors, as well as local dynamics in each country, can make elections appear too complex to the foreign eye.

From this landscape, it’s easy to write off these nations as hopeless. But this would be short-sighted. Countries like Kenya and Rwanda lead Africa’s growth trajectory. Since Kenya’s last election in 2013, foreign investment there has risen. Money is being poured into infrastructure. In Rwanda, Kagame rules over pristine streets in a country that once saw genocide. Poverty and inequality are rapidly falling, while foreign investment in industries such as solar power is booming.

Free and fair elections have long been problematic in African nations where powerful and corrupt dictators sometimes rule endlessly and where opposition and media often face crackdowns. Corruption is also a grave concern, as is political repression. These factors, as well as local dynamics in each country, can make elections appear too complex to the foreign eye. French daily Le Monde, for instance, attempted to explain Kenya’s upcoming vote with a video that drew a parallel to Game of Thrones. What such explanations miss is the need in these countries to build strong democratic institutions to accompany economic growth.

I would say it but I think Kagame’s quote above puts it across most eloquently.