The Kagame Quagmire, or Is he different?
By Bunmi Makinwa
With his “I can only accept” end of year address, Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame opened a new chapter in the “third term” discussion. How does a sitting president seek popular support to extend his term of office beyond what is stipulated in the constitution?
There is a considerable roar of disapproval on third term agendas, but increasingly African leaders are finding ways to normalize a change of the constitution for additional mandate terms. President Kagame has initiated new ways to make the people “compel” a change.
In October 1994, as one of the first wave of international development actors in Rwanda a few months after the genocide, I observed teenaged soldiers who stood ramrod straight at the drive way to the famous Hotel des Mille Collines in Rwanda. They stood at attention with steady eyes scouting round as they oozed assurance of absolute security in the capital city of Kigali, and throughout the country.
These fighters, men and women of the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF), symbolized the new discipline and thoroughness that had swept into the country after years of war. The then 37-year-old Paul Kagame was at the head. At various times Minister of Defence, Vice-President and President, his new government applied exceptional acumen, unparalleled commitment and strict discipline to manage the country.
Against unprecedented odds, overwhelmed initially by thousands of NGOs that “captured” the country with ideas and aid, the new government slowly took control and established its directions. Everything needed to be restarted. The population was traumatized, divided, angry and lost. The economy was in shambles. The infrastructure was primitive and the political system had collapsed.
Within a few years, Rwanda began to emerge as a new African model of development. The government made sure that the world and its own people knew the details of the genocide that had killed some 800,000 Rwandans, mostly of the Tutsi ethnic group. USA President apologized formally for its inaction at the time of the killings. The genocide tribunal heard horror stories of man’s inhumanity to man. The country stared down France on allocation of blame for the war. So confident was Rwanda about its own authority and actions that it put strict limitations on international aid conditionalities and operations of NGOs. Many international NGOs had to leave the country.
Under the RPF-led coalition government, a new country emerged. The economy waxed strong and Rwanda’s leadership started to hold its own amongst its African peers and at global forums. It was a stable, peaceful country that garnered and commanded respect.
Rwanda’s gross domestic product or GDP grew from US$416 in 1994 to US$1,784 in 2015. Its agricultural sector continues to be a major contributor to the economy, amounting to 32.5 per cent of the GDP. A new and growing service sector overtook agriculture as the largest sector with 43.6 per cent of GDP, whilst mining and tourism form significant parts of the growth. Rwanda is the only country in the world with female majority in its house of representatives (deputies), and a third of its senators are women. Life expectancy is improving dramatically and corruption is very low.
The Mo Ibrahim Index of Governance 2015 report provides a comprehensive indication to appraise the east African country. According to the Index, Rwanda ranks 11 amongst 54 African countries in the overall governance scheme. It has a score of 60.7 whilst the average score is 50.1. Mauritius has the highest score of 79.9 and Somalia has the least score of 8.5. In areas of “safety and rule of law”, ‘sustainable economic opportunities” and “human development” Rwanda impressively scores 12, 7, and 9, respectively. However, under “participation and human rights”, it has a low score of 30. Rwanda’s positive attributes of social, economic and human development are depressed by dictatorial and autocratic tendencies, including low level of tolerance for dissent.
The critical question that Rwanda may answer is whether there can be a democratic way to retain a good government, against the possible take over of a country by a thieving, tyrannical elected cabal.
In 2014, speaking in the USA to students on when he planned to leave office, President Kagame stated: “I think at some point we need to leave countries and people to decide their own affairs… I’m here to do business on behalf of Rwandans…let’s wait and see what happens as we go. Whatever will happen, we’ll have an explanation.”
The explanation came in 2015 as a test of President Kagame’s popularity. The first step was a petition nationwide by 3.8 million signatories, some 60 per cent of voters. They demanded a change of the constitution that would lift the restriction on President Kagame to seek another term of office. The mass action sought an extension of another seven year term. Then a reduction of presidential terms of office to five years for a maximum of two terms, and for which President Kagame would still be eligible to run. The mandate extension would only apply to President Kagame who could then stay in office till 2034, if he continues to seek reelection.
Next step – both the lower and upper houses acceded to the popular request. Then the Supreme Court was asked to rule on the constitutionality of such an amendment. It did in a unanimous decision. The road was clear for President Kagame to extend his term of office, but he would not accept the obligation until a national referendum was carried out. The referendum of December 18 overwhelmingly affirmed the changes.
Many leaders in African countries and other parts of the world have modified constitutions to allow them have extension of mandates. In Africa in 2014, Burkina Faso’s former President Blaise Compaore was ousted by popular opposition when he tried it. In 2015, Congo’s President Denis Sassou Nguesso did it relatively easily and Burundi’s President Nkurunziza imposed it and continues to face resistance on it; Democratic Republic of Congo’s President Joseph Kabila is struggling to make sure his change is successful. Most constitutions in Africa have term limits but many do not. Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni at the height of his popularity in 2005 expunged term limits from the constitution
Nowhere has the mandate extension followed the unusual steps that Rwanda’s President Kagame’s modification went through. It cannot be doubted that it was a popular action. The arguments in support are based on President Kagame’s record of impressive performance; fragility of the country and importance of consolidating gains made against a tradition of ethnic division, wars and instability over several decades. The opposition parties are small, weak and hardly visible in any important matters.
Opposition to the constitutional changes came from within the country and outside, particularly USA and United Kingdom. Mainly, the changes were seen as a continuation of a negative tradition of long stay in office by political leaders who perpetuate themselves in office; the undesirable tinkering with the constitution; and stifling of politically uncomfortable alternative views.
By making the extension of his mandate to conform with legal, legislative and national expressions that appear so overwhelming, President Kagame sets new parameters. At the least, future similar requests for mandate extension can be measured against such standards of popular demand.
President Kagame is aware of the quagmire of power but he would not leave the stage when the ovation is loudest. The longer one stays in power the more the struggles, and, like a quicksand, the deeper one sinks. In his acceptance speech on December 31, he said: “But I do not think our aim is to have a President for life, nor is it what I would want. Sooner rather than later, this office will be transferred from one person to another…”