Rwanda: Kagame keeps them guessing

Irene Malema

Halfway through his final constitutional term in office, Paul Kagame has suddenly prompted a public discussion about the presidential succession. But is it a ploy to change the rules to let him run for a third term?

President Paul Kagame has plunged Rwanda into a political guessing game after finally opening up discussion of his possible succession. For, while his last term as president expires in 2017, critics fear he is manoeuvring for constitutional changes to allow him to run for a third term.

Choosing a new leader would be a daunting task for Kagame’s ruling Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF), the dominant political party after bringing an end to the 1994 genocide that claimed 800,000 lives.

Despite the president’s considerable personal popularity across the country, observers fear that failure to manage a peaceful transition of power by Kagame could threaten the economic and social stability achieved in 14 years of RPF government.

Under Rwanda’s constitution, adopted in 2003, the president is elected for a seven-year term renewable only once. But the country is yet to have change of leadership through an election. Kagame won re-election in August 2010 with 93 percent of the vote, in what was the nation’s second presidential race since 1994.

Until recently, his succession has been considered a ‘sensitive’ topic within the RPF especially following the desertion of senior cadre members, including the exiled Lieutenant General Kayumba Nyamwasa and Colonel Patrick Karegeya – both of whom have since become Kagame critics and joined the opposition.

But Kagame seemed to have caught his party members off guard in February when he tasked senior party officials to find “a formula” that will ensure “change, continuity and stability”, officially opening up space for debate among Rwandans about a possible post-Kagame era. As a result, Rwandans are now busily speculating on whether Kagame, who has in the past expressed no interest in a third term, will actually stand aside in 2017.

While Rwanda has a multi-party system, nine of the ten legally registered political parties remain weak in the face of RPF dominance. Rwanda’s Democratic Green Party, whose leader returned from exile last year pledging to resume political activities, including participating in the forthcoming September 2013 parliamentary elections, is yet to be legally registered.

Two exiled parties, meeting in South Africa in February, accused Kagame of manoeuvring to amend the constitution. And at home, there is a growing view that the ruling party might take advantage of its dominance to ‘request’ Kagame to consider a third term. Rwanda’s current Minister for Internal Security, Sheikh Musa Fazil Harerimana, from the Idealist Democratic Party (PDI), was the first to say the constitution should be amended to allow Kagame to contest. At the time, Kagame dismissed the minister’s remarks and insisted he would not be seeking another term, but more recently he has given mixed signals as to whether he will leave office.

“Don’t worry about that,” Kagame told CNN’s international correspondent, Christiane Amanpour, in January when asked if he would hand over power. “We have the constitution in place. We have always tried to do our best to satisfy the needs of our people and expectations of our people.” Asked if that meant “yes” he would step down, he replied, “No. It is a broad answer to say you don’t need to worry about anything.”

At a press briefing in February, when asked whether he would leave office, Kagame said he preferred to “cross the bridge when he gets to it”, arguing that the country has more pressing issues to deal with.

Kagame has been hailed for transforming the country after the 1994 genocide, turning it into – in the view of some – a model of economic and social development. Between 2001 and 2011, poverty rates fell by 14 percentage points, effectively lifting more than one million Rwandans out of poverty.

Social indicators also improved during this period. Net enrolment in primary school increased to almost 100 percent, completion rates tripled and child mortality decreased more than threefold, hitting the benchmark of two-thirds reduction as targeted by the Millennium Development Goals, according to the World Bank.

Yet Kagame’s government has also received criticism, particularly from human rights activists, for stifling the opposition and limiting press freedom. He has been likened to the late former Ethiopian prime minister, Meles Zenawi, who directed his country to development through authoritarianism.

Last year, Rwanda was accused of supporting the so-called M23 rebels, made up of soldiers who deserted the Democratic Republic of Congo army after accusing their government of failing to respect the terms of its 23 March 2009 peace deal, which incorporated them into the national army.

The rebels, mainly ethnic Tutsis, have been blamed for instability in eastern Congo. When a UN Group of Experts accused senior military officials of equipping, training and directly commanding the M23 rebels, Rwanda denied the allegations, but donors responded by suspending budgetary aid to the government. Human rights organisations meanwhile accused the government not only of collaborating with M23, which is considered responsible for war crimes, but also of human rights abuses within Rwanda.

Following the aid suspensions, Rwanda’s economy has come under pressure. Although growth of 7.7 percent was recorded in 2012, high demand for foreign exchange to finance imports caused the Rwandan franc to depreciate. The government has tried to compensate for the aid shortfalls by reducing planned expenditures for 2013 and by raising funds locally.

However, donors were expected to resume aid by the end of March, following a decision by the German government to unfreeze funds because Rwanda was taking steps “in the right direction” in helping to resolve the crisis in the Congo. In February, the rebels signed a new peace deal with the Congolese government and this was later supported by a deal between the UN and 11 African governments, which could soon establish an ‘intervention brigade’ to discourage rebel activities in eastern Congo.

About the author:

Irene Malema is a freelance journalist specialising in East Africa and the Great Lakes Region


Post a comment

Leave a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Amnesty International