Personally, I feel confident President Kagame will step down in 2017. This, despite his having gone from saying that he would unreservedly move aside, to seemingly leaving himself some wiggle room for a constitutional amendment. In fact, lately he has been trying to diffuse questions about whether he will leave office when the Constitution, as it presently reads, mandates he must.
When pressed about it by CNN journalist Christiane Amanpour in January, Kagame said, “Don’t worry about that. 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.” When Amanpour asked if that meant that yes, he would step down, he replied, “No. It is a broad answer to say you don’t need to worry about anything.”
During a press conference last month, when asked about 2017, Kagame impatiently answered, “I don’t need a third term. Just look at me, I don’t need it. I don’t do this job I am doing as a job for being paid, or as something that benefits me.”
No big man
The Rwandan Constitution states the president can only hold a two-term post, with each term lasting seven years. Kagame’s first term begun in 2003. He himself has said very often that failing to find a successor would be an indictment of his own rule.
Furthermore, the Rwandan President has prided himself on how different he is from traditional African big men, whose governance styles resemble French Bourbon monarch Louis XIV: L’état, c’est moi(‘The state, it is I’). Changing the Constitution would group Kagame in with Zaire’s Mobuto Sese Seko, Kenya’s Daniel Arap Moi and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe. That’s a fate worse than death, in his estimation.
Then again, those less confident need only look to Rwanda’s neighbour to the north, Uganda. In 2006, Yoweri Museveni, president of Uganda and political mentor to Kagame, used the National Resistance Movement’s overwhelming party majority in parliament, to remove term limits. This, despite the fact that Museveni had, on countless occasions said that he’d respect term limits. The 69 year old has ruled Uganda since 1986.
On 8 February, while chairing a National Executive Committee meeting of the ruling Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) party, Kagame tasked the 2,000 delegates to find a solution that would ensure change, stability and continuity post-2017. Some delegates, however, refused to countenance political change. As English paper The New Times reported, the delegates argued, “Why change a winning team? It is the Rwandan people who voted for the term limits in the constitution, based on Rwanda’s needs at the time, they can vote to lift them.”
So, on one side is a largely rural citizenry who cannot fathom a future without Kagame. On the other, a certain unease emanates from the urban elite who wonder whether Rwanda’s political progress will stagnate if and when the Constitution is amended.
With but a few hiccups here and there, Kagame’s presidency has so far been wildly successful. This success would most probably continue if he ruled beyond 2017. The worry, though, is that Rwandans might lose an opportunity to witness the first smooth transition of power in its 51-year post-colonial history.
The issue right now concerns a future where the whims of the mob could supersede the powers of the Constitution. And one man has the power to steer Rwanda towards a future where constitutionalism – not one individual – is king. Mr. President, over to you.