For the past one-and-a-half decades, President Paul Kagame has dominated Rwanda’s political life. His political CV tells it all: a rebel leader who managed to out manoeuvre all his bush colleagues and establish himself as an indispensable figure during the 1990-1994 Rwandan Patriotic Army invasion and later in post-genocide Rwanda; a vice-president and defence minister who in reality held executive power behind the back of his predecessor Pasteur Bizimungu; a military strategist who, with foreign backing, launched two invasions in neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo; a soldier who ruthlessly crushed opposition and dissent to grant himself two electoral victories in 2003 and 2010; a man as much praised for economic recovery and stability as he is accused of authoritarianism, war crimes and the abuse of human rights. The list goes on.
But according to article 101 of Rwanda’s constitution, the position that gives President Kagame this immense power expires in 2017 when he completes his second and supposedly last term: “The President of the Republic is elected for a term of seven years renewable only once. Under no circumstances shall a person hold the office of President of Republic for more than two terms.”
Yet the question of whether the constitution will reign supreme come 2017 – and, crucially, whether it will remain untouched by Kagame - is the political question facing Rwanda.
Kagame has made it clear on several occasions that he will not change the constitution to stay in power. However, he has, on occasion also been non-committal. Just a day after voting in last year’s presidential polls, on August 10, 2010, he was hosted by journalist Andrew Mwenda on a radio show on Contact FM in Kigali. One of the contentious issues was whether Kagame would change the constitution to run for a third term.
“I don’t want to be involved in changing the constitution so that I stay in power,” he replied. “And particularly changing the constitution for that purpose - I would really hate it. I don’t intend to do that.”
Scrutinised closely though, his response suggests that if any reason other than his staying in power comes up that “necessitates” changing the constitution, the constitution can be changed. While one could also infer that although Kagame himself does not “intend” to change the constitution, he may not mind anyone else getting involved in doing so. And when asked the same question in a president’s press conference at the end of 2010, he replied: “I will answer that when [the] time comes.”
While Kagame has expressed his dissatisfaction with the idea of changing the constitution, some Kagame allies have expressed the opposite viewpoint.
Interior minister Sheikh Musa Fazil Harelimana, chairman the small Ideal Democratic Party (PDI) which is part of the RPF-led government, said in September 2010 that Rwanda needs “to move to real democracy” by scrapping the seven-year term.
While few may have taken him seriously at the time, the PDI party congress recently started campaigning for an end to term limits. Describing Kagame as exceptional and as having done much for Rwanda, the minister argued Kagame should go on ruling Rwanda for as long as he wants.
“We as the population will remove that impediment from the constitution such that there is nothing stopping him except his own choice,” Harelimana said.
It seems apparent that Harelimana’s appeal is a political game plan to lay the groundwork for constitutional changes that will pave the way for Kagame to stay in power. However, in this situation Kagame would be portrayed as riding on the back of popular demand and epitomising the meeting of the people’s wishes, rather than overriding the constitution that lies at the heart of his country’s democratic process, as was the case with Kagame’s politico-military mentor, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni – who heads the only East African country without term limits for presidents.
Asked in the aforementioned talk show what his position would be if the RPF said it wanted him to stay, Kagame replied thus: “That is why I don’t want to pre-empt any debate. By the way it may come from people other than the RPF.”
And indeed, whether by coincidence or political calculations, this is exactly what happened: the call for abolishing term limits came from those other quarters, and not the RPF.
While praised for the stability and economic growth he has brought to Rwanda, Kagame receives an equal measure of criticism as an autocrat atop a personality cult, who has been accused of killing to perpetuate his power.
Writing in The Guardian of London in August 2010, Phil Clark argued that Kagame’s clampdown on dissent is aimed at maintaining cohesion with in his own divided party rather than subduing relatively harmless external opposition. Indeed, in the run-up to last year’s polls, when Kagame denied registration to two opposition parties, shut down two private newspapers, put two opposition figures behind bars, it was not because he was afraid of their impact, but to threaten dissenters within his own Rwandan Patriotic Front.
“You don’t talk of party cohesion when the party exists only in letters,” John Nkongoli, an RPF founder who has been imprisoned after disagreeing with Kagame at a party congress a decade ago, has said.
And the facts vindicate his view. There is no doubt the RPF has disintegrated somewhat, with former senior party and military top men falling out with the president, and many of them opting to go into exile. At the top of the list are his former army commander and spy master, respectively, Kayumba Nyamwasa and Patrick Karegeya, both currently exiled in South Africa.
Since 1996, there have been ominous signs of internal cracks in the RPF. Kagame says the fallout is a result of the failure of his former lieutenants to be accountable. But none of them agree.
“The problem is his dictatorship, his false sense of holding [a] monopoly of what is best for Rwanda. It is his pursuit for unaccountable power. It is how he reacts to contradicting viewpoints on matters of national importance,” says long-time friend turned bitter critic, Nyamwasa.
And in what seems to be a notable turn to critical words, US Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice pointed to the need for greater openness in the country while praising the economic leaps made by the Kagame regime.
"Press restrictions persist. Civil society activists, journalists, and political opponents of the government often fear organizing peacefully and speaking out," said Rice. "Some have been harassed. Some have been intimidated by late-night callers. Some have simply disappeared."
But why should a man who says he is ready to pass over the leadership mantle come 2017 be allergic to criticism and opposing views? Critics argue Kagame’s iron hand when dealing with dissent is meant to ensure an unchallenged 2017 bid - either his own, or his chosen successor’s.
One point stands out in Rwanda’s succession politics: Kagame’s only safe exit in 2017 - presuming he decides to go – will be through choosing a successor who would not hold him accountable for his past actions and guarantee his security in Rwanda, given that he has two international arrest warrants hanging over him.
But in a country where his biggest threat is not the Hutu majority but his fellow Tutsis, specifically those who made him who he is now, finding a successor whose protection he could trust and powerful enough to quell a Tutsi intra-group resistance is not easy.
When Kagame sent his eldest son Ivan Cyomoro to the elite American West Point Military Academy, speculation grew that he was preparing him for the presidency - a hypothesis that only time will prove.
However, a sceptical view could be that without such a successor in place the chances of an extended term for Kagame only increase. In fact, unconfirmed media reports say that in a recent army high command meeting, members resolved Kagame should stay beyond 2017.
Whatever course Kagame takes, 2017 will be a defining moment of his political legacy, and Rwanda’s future - either further entrenching a dictatorship or laying the seeds of an open and competitive electoral democracy.
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