On December 18, 2015, Rwandans voted in a referendum to approve various amendments that had been proposed by the Senate to the 2003 constitution [PDF]. Key among the changes was the amendment of Article 101 of the constitution to change presidential terms of office from seven years each to five years each. The amendments, which were approved by 98.3 percent of the voters, include a special exception made for the incumbent president, Paul Kagame, who is currently serving his second, and what would have been his last, seven-year term in office under the 2003 constitution. Following the amendment, President Kagame can now run for another seven-year term in 2017 and another two five-year terms subsequently. Consequently, the amendments make it possible for Mr. Kagame, now 58, to remain in power until 2034.
President Kagame has been the president of Rwanda since 2000, when his predecessor, Pasteur Bizimungu, resigned. He was, however, very much in a position of control since 1994 when his rebel forces took over the capital, Kigali, ousting Hutu extremists and ending the genocide. He was Rwanda's de facto leader when he served as Vice President and Minister for Defence between 1994 and 2000.
The genocide, the darkest blot on Rwanda's history, remains very much alive in Rwanda's national conscience. Around 800,000 Rwandans were killed, and over two million more displaced. Because of President Kagame's contribution in ending the genocide, most Rwandans revere him. President Kagame has, however, perhaps unfairly, used the unfortunate history of the genocide to propagate dictatorial rule.
Rwandans would never want a recurrence of a genocide. They perhaps live in daily fear of such recurrence. The government takes advantage of this by heavily regulating and censoring the media, stifling the opposition in its attempts to discharge its role, and unjustifiably limiting the freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. There is little space for dissent, and the excuse seems to be that disagreements may lead the country to civil strife.
With these in mind, it is hardly any surprise that President Kagame has always registered overwhelming victory in elections, at least according to the official results. The results of the referendum vote, with some 98 percent of the voters supporting the proposed amendments, follows this script.
The manner in which the Rwandan government and the National Electoral Commission managed the process left a lot to be desired. There was not enough time and opportunity for meaningful political discussions on the proposed amendments. The date of the referendum was announced on December 8, 2015, which was just 10 days before the vote. Campaigns against the proposed amendments were not allowed. The opposition Democratic Green Party of Rwanda's planned "NO CHANGE" campaigns were rendered illegal by the electoral commission's confirmation that campaigns were not allowed. Moreover, since there was little time for civic education, and the text of the proposed amendments was only made publicly available less than a day before the vote, most of the voters probably voted for the changes without appreciating their full effect. In addition, there was no official provision for independent observation of the process.
The flaws in the process did not go unnoticed internationally. The European Union Heads of Mission in Rwanda made a statement [PDF] to express their concerns that "the one week run-up to the referendum in Rwanda neither fully explained the constitutional changes, nor offered sufficient time and space for debate." They faulted the fact that "the text of the draft constitution adopted by the Parliament was only published publicly less than one day ahead of the vote in Rwanda" and regretted that no process allowing for independent monitoring was put in place.
The United States, in a statement by National Security Council (NSC) spokesperson Ned Price, expressed disappointment "that a referendum was called on short notice to amend the Rwandan constitution and introduce exceptions to term limits" and regret "that the arrangements for the referendum failed to provide sufficient time and opportunity for political debate on the merits of the proposed provisions."
While there is basis to fault the process, it is nonetheless true that some 4 million out of the 6.3 million Rwandan registered voters petitioned for the changes to allow President Kagame to run for a third term. It is not clear whether the seeming desperation of Rwandans to keep President Kagame in power is out of fear or love. Either way, President Kagame should preserve his legacy by retiring next year, or risk ultimately leaving office with his presidency being considered more of an error than an era.
While presidential term limits may be an effective way of doing away with bad leaders, this is not, in fact, their primary function. There are elections, impeachments, and recall of leaders for that purpose. Term limits, rather, are an acknowledgement by society that national leadership is a privilege accorded to the first among equals, and that there are many people within society who are capable of leading a country. By imposing term limits, society allows transfer of power and transitions. Rwanda has the opportunity to experience this next year. They should neither be denied nor allowed to deny themselves this opportunity. While the populace is now used to the leadership of Mr. Kagame, and perhaps very comfortable with it considering what was there before it, the country will make significant steps in dealing with the fear that seems to control every decision the country makes when a proper democratic transition occurs. Rwandans should not have to wait for President Kagame's death (God forbid), or 2034 to be part of this!
President Kagame has done a good job during the time he has been in office. Rwanda has achieved significant economic and social development. Mr. Kagame has himself earned the respect and admiration of many Rwandans and the international community. This is, however, not a ticket to life presidency. In fact, holding on to power is only likely to lead to disastrous results for himself and Rwanda, if the experiences of other nations are anything to go by.
President Kagame need not look far to see the potential disastrous consequences of holding on to power. Africa is replete with examples. Presidents Yoweri Museveni and Robert Mugabe of Uganda and Zimbabwe, respectively, are fine examples of leaders who during the initial periods of their leadership were national heroes who enjoyed a lot of domestic and international support, but have over time, by holding on to power for too long, not only lost a lot of this support but also transformed into despots. Burundi is currently experiencing turbulent times because President Pierre Nkurunzinza has held on to power beyond his term limit. On the other hand, Nelson Mandela of South Africa, who arguably made much more personal sacrifices for his country, and who enjoyed the overwhelming support of his people and the international community, served a single term as president and voluntarily relinquished power. Even Joaquim Chissano of Mozambique, who served as president for a longer period of time (1986 to 2005) knew the right time to relinquish power, having transformed the previously war-torn country into one of the most successful African democracies. The right moment for President Kagame to retire is 2017.
The support and confidence President Kagame once enjoyed internationally has dwindled in recent times and continues to dwindle. He and the government of Rwanda have come under criticism following the December 2015 referendum vote. This will only heighten if President Kagame makes a definite decision to run for president in 2017. While there is a lot of merit in the argument that Rwanda is a sovereign nation whose people should have the right to choose how they are governed and who to have as their leader, it is also an insult to Rwandans to suggest that only President Kagame can lead the nation.
It is inconceivable that Rwanda does not have other individuals who are able to lead the country as well as or even better than President Kagame. There should therefore be no justification for President Kagame's continued stay in office beyond 2017. Indeed, if President Kagame has not, in his 16 years so far as president, groomed individuals within his own government and party who are ready to lead the country, he has failed. What happens if, God forbid, he dies or otherwise becomes incapacitated?
To quote the NSC statement again,
"President Kagame, who in many ways has strengthened and developed Rwanda, now has an historic opportunity to enshrine his legacy by honoring his commitments to respect the term limits set when he entered office. By doing so, President Kagame would establish a credible foundation for democracy in Rwanda, reinforce the substantial progress that has been achieved towards sustained peace and prosperity for all Rwandans, and set a laudable example not only for Rwanda, but for the region and the world."
What would be a greater legacy than an African leader voluntarily relinquishing power when he had the opportunity to rule for another 17 years?
James Tugee is licensed to practice law in Kenya. He is an associate attorney at Hamilton Harrison & Mathews in Nairobi, Kenya. He specializes in commercial litigation and arbitration. He is currently on leave as he pursues his LLM studies at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law.
Suggested citation: James Tugee, President Kagame Can Preserve His Legacy by Retiring in 2017 Despite Constitutional Amendments, JURIST - Student Commentary, Feb. 19, 2016, http://jurist.org/dateline/2016/2/james-tugee-president-kagame.php
This article was prepared for publication by Dave Rodkey, an Assistant Editor for JURIST Commentary service. Please direct any questions or comments to him at firstname.lastname@example.org