Rwandan President Paul Kagame attends a summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia on February 24, 2013. Photo/AFP AFP
By ANDREW M MWENDA
Posted Friday, March 1 2013 at 02:00
On February 8 this year, Rwanda’s ruling party, the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF), held a meeting attended by over 2,000 delegates in the capital Kigali.At the conference, President Paul Kagame introduced two subjects: the challenges facing the country over the international community’s allegations that Kigali is fuelling regional conflict, and his own plans to respect term limits and retire from the presidency in 2017.Naturally, the second subject set the conference — and, by extension, the country — afire, sending rivulets of excitement, anticipation and even confusion throughout the ‘land of a thousand hills’.
“I have been asked by many people, especially journalists, whether I will respect the term limits on the presidency,” Kagame began his speech on the issue, “but regardless of the answer I give, the question keeps coming back. Now even citizens are asking me the same question: Will I retire in 2017? Many of those asking this question are worried about the future of the country; whether, when I leave, there will be continuity and stability, especially given the increasing pressures on the country.”Kagame went ahead to display letters from ‘ordinary Rwandans’ beseeching him to stay on, with many expressing fears that, should he leave, the gains of his presidency could soon be swept away by ineptitude and political indiscipline.Those remarks, and the letters in Kagame’s hands, brought to national attention a trend that has troubled the presidency and its opposition over the past few months.
In the private missives, as well as in public functions, people say that, given the unique circumstances of Rwanda and recent pressures on its government to toe a certain line, they are worried that when Kagame leaves, many things could go wrong, and especially so if he leaves quickly and haphazardly.“Irrespective of me saying; ‘Yes, I will go’, people keep saying they are not sure this is possible,” he said. “I don’t want this uncertainty to continue. Come 2017, we are going to have change. But there needs to be continuity and stability. Therefore the challenge is how to organise this change while at the same time ensuring continuity of what we have achieved and also retaining the stability of the country.”
To get the back story of Rwanda’s seeming aversion to a post-Kagame government, we talked to those in his administration and those outside it, to his loyalists and his biggest critics, to the man in high office and the woman in the streets. The results, needless to say, were baffling.Except for a small fringe in Kigali, the vast majority of ordinary Rwandans want the Constitution amended to remove term limits so that Kagame can run again.Even among the top leadership of the RPF and other political parties, this view has gained wide currency lately.And the call to cling on to Kagame has become more entrenched after recent accusations that Kigali is sponsoring M23 rebels in eastern DRC. International aid cuts only made this newfound nationalism even stronger and more attractive.As a result, the pressure on Rwanda, presumably aimed at promoting human rights and democracy, seems to be producing the opposite political response domestically.Rather than improve the democratisation process, and largely because it is seen by many as an attempt by foreign interests to bully the country and its leaders, people in government and ordinary citizens are taking positions that may undermine that goal.
That is why, given the pressure mounting on him to stay, Kagame may have to walk a delicate political rope to convince an increasingly scared and insecure nation that a transition is still not only possible, but absolutely necessary.Sources say the president is determined to retire in 2017, but the man does not want to come across as arrogant and insensitive to the feelings of his colleagues in RPF and the loyal citizenry. So his words at the conference were calculated.For example, he challenged the delegates to give him their views on the matter. “I want this to be your homework,” he told them. “Go and think about how we can achieve these three things at the same time: change, continuity and stability.”In almost every sentence he made, the word change featured prominently. But top RPF insiders say the president was deliberately trying to avoid emphasising change and downplaying continuity because he knew most people don’t want that change. And he has to carry the people with him.
In saying he was giving them homework, Kagame let loose the dogs of intellectual debate in the NEC.Most of those who stood up to speak called upon the country to amend the Constitution to remove term limits.A citizen from Rusizi wrote in to say that his life had changed under Kagame and would not like to see the president leave power in 2017.Another letter said Rwanda had earlier been a divided nation, that the state had been an active player in promoting hatred and inter-personal violence, but Kagame had brought stability to the land.“Mr President,” a woman in the audience rose to speak, “I have been discussing this issue with friends in my community, and there is a consensus that, if you leave, everything could be lost. When (we) elected you, it was because of the trust we had in you as a person, not the RPF as a party. We need to be careful as we manage any change so that we do not lose the person who gives the party the respect and popularity it has.”
Having listened to the opinions of those calling upon him to remain president beyond 2017, Kagame said the reasons many people had given him for staying longer were the very reasons he had to step down.“People say that I should stay because there is no one to replace me,” he said. “But if in all these years 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.”Kagame said that given the country’s history, context and current threats, citizens are genuinely feeling insecure and need stability above everything else.The fears expressed by ordinary people and other high officials in government and the opposition should not be rubbished as baseless, Kagame said, but should be used to put in place measures to address them.
He also challenged RPF leaders to address the issue of limited citizen confidence in the party compared to the one they show in the president.Yet those calling on Kagame to stay beyond 2017, however justified their fears may be, are falling into the trap the president’s critics are praying for.For those who hate Kagame, removing term limits will be the best opportunity to argue that he is an ordinary African despot seeking to cling to power at all costs.In the cacophony of accusations and criticisms that will result from such a move, any reasons for the amendment will not be heard.No person is acutely aware of this than Kagame himself, and it seems many of his critics who pray he stays beyond 2017 so that they can attack him underestimate his strength of character.“Like most have suggested,” Kagame said, “you wish or expect me to stay beyond 2017. However, at a personal level, I need you to consider two things: How do I stay? What you are asking me to do can lead me to stay as president, but at the cost of destroying the political capital I have accumulated over the years… a political capital that is based on the fact that I am a person of my word. Second, if I stay, I will have behaved in a manner that most people have come to expect of leaders in Africa.”
Many people in Africa and elsewhere in the world see amendments to constitutions to remove term limits on the presidency as manipulations by incumbents to stay in power out of personal ambition rather than public service.The Rwandan president, his closest advisors say, is acutely aware that, if ever the Constitution were amended to remove term limits, he would be compared to the most venal of former African despots like Mobutu Sese Seko of the former Zaire, Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, Paul Biya of Cameroun, and Nansigbe Eyadema of Togo, among others. But Kagame does not want such comparisons to taint his brand.“I do not want to destroy the political capital that I have carefully built over the years,” he said, adding that he understood the fear, both in the RPF and other political parties, that should he leave, there could be “a breakdown of order as happened in Mali recently”.
Kagame talked about a 2003 conversation he had had with Alpha Konari, the former president of Mali, about how he had left power.Konari did not seem to notice that, while he had met the standard of a peaceful transfer of power from one leader to another, he had not accomplished the other component of such a successful transition; leaving behind strong institutions and mechanisms for continuity and stability.As a consequence, Mali has now failed as a state and recently needed the intervention of troops from its former colonial master to save — not just its democracy — but the state itself from collapse.“I would not want to be a party to such carelessness of leaving the country without having taken adequate measures to ensure continuity and stability,” Kagame promised. “That would be a betrayal of my beliefs and of the country. I would not be party to carelessness where I leave the presidency without a proper succession process. So I have a responsibility to work with all Rwandans to put in place a formula that will allow me to leave the presidency while ensuring that there is continuity and stability.”
Many Rwandan leaders and citizens in both RPF and the opposition believe that if Kagame has to leave the presidency as he seems bent on doing in 2017, adequate measures should be put in place to retain for him an important role in a post-him Rwanda.The challenge facing the leaders of RPF is which course to take. One example is Russia’s Vladmir Putin, who respected term limits and withdrew from the presidency to become Prime Minister and later returned to the presidency.The second is Nelson Mandela, who left the presidency and the party and did not seek to play any important leadership role.The third example is Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere, who retired from the presidency but for the next 10 years remained chairman of the ruling party and therefore in a position to play a vital role in national politics.Those close to him say Kagame is an admirer of Nyerere and Mandela, but prefers the former over the latter.Therefore, he is most inclined to accept a hybrid of both nations’ experiences, picking the good in both. To this end, the Putin option is out of question. That leaves the South African and Tanzanian experience.
Many key players inside RPF are suggesting that if the Constitution is to be amended, it should be to ensure that, rather than have the election of a president directly, Rwanda adopts the party system, like South Africa, where the party with the largest number of votes after an election selects the president.“The South African model can be joined to the Tanzanian experience, whereby President Kagame can remain chairman of RPF,” a leading RPF cadre who did not want to be named said. “If it is the party that elects the president, we are sure RPF will win in 2017 and elect a president. If Kagame is our chairman, he can exercise influence through the party. The president, having been elected by the party instead of directly by citizens, will be more inclined to listen to the party.”Another leading RPF insider was more blunt: “The experience we had with (former president Pastuer) Bizimungu shows that the party should have powers to recall a president like the ANC has in South Africa.Did you see what happened to (Thabo) Mbeki when the party felt he was not doing the right thing?We in RPF want the same rules where we can recall a president. This is to avoid a situation where we front a candidate who turns out to act different from what the party wants. We would be in grave danger if we have to wait for seven years to correct the problem.”
The view that the Constitution should be amended to resemble the South African model has widespread support not only inside RPF, but also in the opposition. Yet Kagame did not promote this idea at the conference.Instead, he emphasised his desire to retire, saying: “Let me be very personal. I need a break as a person. Think about this. Much as I do not want a break at any price including the stability of the country, I still implore you to think about this. We must find a formula that allows change with continuity and stability. That is the challenge.”