Hope is in the air in Rwanda and Kenya. It has reared its beautiful head in each of these nations in the form of a constitutional referendum in Kenya and a presidential election in Rwanda. What made these events dramatically different is that in both cases they were peaceful expressions of people’s hopes and dreams, with extraordinarily high participation and virtually no incidences of violence.

What’s so important about hope? Just about everything. Post-colonial nations are all-too-often left with an insidious legacy of autocratic rule and indigenous leaders generally take up the governance style of their colonial predecessors: disregarding the rule of law and term limits if they exist, rigging elections and discouraging civic participation by inciting ethnic divisiveness and imposing a culture of almost impenetrable corruption to discourage citizenship by keeping individuals “in their place” as helpless subjects, without rights and responsibilities — and without hope.

The people in Rwanda and Kenya have spoken in overwhelming numbers to move on from that legacy and create a new era of progressive, prosperous, participatory governance. They could not have done it without a new wave of hope — seeing a window of opportunity in the referendum on a new constitution in Kenya and in reelecting Paul Kagame to the presidency in Rwanda. People in both countries have gained courage and resolve through the years, and are developing the increasingly strong civic culture that is the best and arguably the only effective weapon against tyranny. They are, in short, saying “Yes We Can!”
I had the privilege of witnessing these events firsthand and “inhaling” the spirit of hope — a hope that breeds a sense of power that defies the colonial legacy and the post-colonial generation of leadership that bought into it. They have gotten on that road to democracy — a road that definitely goes somewhere but never gets there — because democracy is always a work in progress. The belief that it has a final destination is the kind of wrong-minded idealism that breeds paralysis — the perfectionism that discourages civic progressive action.

Negative views at home and abroad might have stood in the way of the Kagame re-election in Rwanda. But Rwandans have found in him a leader who has actively encouraged them to choose their future, both economically and politically, providing training in entrepreneurship and civic initiatives, who has more women than men in his parliament and who has been intolerant of corruption, ethnic divisiveness and environmental abuse. In Kenya, too, there is ample reason for skepticism, notwithstanding the resounding support for the new constitution, as there is a level of corruption there, in both the public and private sectors that creates an enormous obstacle to progress.

When we Americans look with admiration at our own remarkably forward-thinking founders, we recall that several of them were slave owners. Of course that was wrong — and they knew it was wrong; but they also realized that they would not get the support necessary to launch a nation committed to liberty and justice for all if they included the slavery issue in the Constitution. And so they designed a system that would, albeit belatedly, abolish slavery and provide rights to many of those who were not included in the original definition of “We the People.” They did not, in the words of Voltaire, let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

Steps forward in any nation are not panaceas. There are none. But, they are necessary. Without hope, without belief in themselves, without trust in their capacity to shape their future, Rwandans and Kenyans would not have taken these important steps forward last week. I applaud them.

Publication Date: August 15, 2010

An Ode to Hope in Africa