By Andrew M. Mwenda
On February 8, 2012, Rwanda’s ruling party, the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) held a meeting attended by over 2,000 delegates. At that conference, President Paul Kagame introduced two subjects: the challenges facing the country from the international community’s allegations of the country’s involvement in the DR Congo conflict and his own plans to respect term limits and retire from the presidency in 2017. The second subject caused a lot of excitement, anticipation and even confusion.
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 our citizens asking this question are worried about the future of the country – that when I leave, will there be continuity and stability especially given the increasing pressures on the country.”
Kagame, who was holding letters from ordinary Rwandans, told an attentive NEC meeting attended by over 2,000 people that many citizens have been writing to him expressing fears that when and if he leaves, there could be a reversal of the path the country is on now. In the letters, as well as at public functions where he officiates, 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 he leaves, many things could go wrong, especially 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 do we organise this change while at the same time ensuring continuity of what we have achieved and also retaining the stability of the country.”
The Independent has interviewed many people in high and low places within the government of Rwanda but also ordinary citizens on the streets. 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. This position has become more entrenched given recent attacks on the country accusing its government of sponsoring M23 rebels in eastern DRC and coupled with foreign aid cuts by international donors.
This way, international 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. 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 necessary.
Sources say Kagame is determined to retire in 2017. But equally he does not want to come across as arrogant and insensitive to the feelings of his colleagues in RPF and ordinary citizens. So his words at the conference were calculated. For example, he challenged NEC delegates saying he wants to hear their views on the matter. “I want this to be your homework,” he said, “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 remained. But top RPF insiders say that the president was deliberately trying to avoid emphasizing change and downplaying continuity because he knew most people do not want change. And he has to carry the people with him.
In saying he was giving them homework, Kagame let loose the dogs of debate in NEC. Many people stood up to speak and called upon the country to amend the constitution to remove term limits.
A citizen from Rusizi said his life has changed under kagame and he would not like to see the president leave power in 2017.
Another letter said Rwanda had been divided and people were at each other’s throats – and the state was an active participant in promoting hatred and inter personal violence. Now there is stability and the state enforces order. “Mr. President I have been discussing with friends in my community and there is a consensus that if you leave, everything could be lost.”
A woman in audience said: Mr. President, if you have to leave, there are many things to think about. When people elected you, it was because of trust in you as a person than RPF as a party. We need to be careful as we manage any change so that we as a party 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 that the reason many people have given him for staying longer is the very reason he feels that makes it imperative he leaves power.
“People say that I should stay because there is no one to replace me. 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. Secondly, if I stay, I will have behaved in a manner that most people have come to expect of leaders in Africa.”
Kagame said that many people in Africa and elsewhere in the world see amendments to the constitution to remove term limits on the presidency as manipulations by incumbents to stay in power out of personal ambition 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 will be compared to the most venal of former African despots like Mobutu Sese Sekko of former Zaire, Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, Paul Biya of Cameroun, Gnassingbé Eyadéma of Togo etc. 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.
The second matter, Kagame said, is that he is conscious of the source of fear many citizens, in RPF and other political parties, have expressed i.e. that “I can leave the presidency and then there is a breakdown of order as happened in Mali recently.”
Kagame talked about a 2003 conversation he had had with Alpha Oumar Konaré, the former president of Mali, about how he had left power. Konaré, Kagame said, 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 i.e. 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,” Kagame said, “of leaving the country without having taken adequate measures to ensure continuity and stability. 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 parties 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 ten 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 that Kagame is an admirer of Nyerere and Mandela; although he prefers the former over the later. Therefore, he is most inclined to accept a hybrid of both nations’ experience that selects 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 should adopt the party system like that of South Africa. Here, it is political parties that compete and 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 told The Independent, “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.”
The Bizimungu experience
Another leading RPF insider was blunter: “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 be like the one of South Africa has widespread support not only inside RPF but also the opposition parties in parliament in Rwanda. Yet Kagame did not promote this idea at the conference – clearly remaining silent about it. Some sources say the president deliberately avoided making such a suggestion lest he is misunderstood as seeking to control his successor.
At the NEC conference, Kagame emphasised his desire to retire when he said: “But 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.”
No leader of a revolutionary movement that captured power after a protracted revolution has left office voluntarily except Fidel Castro of Cuba after ruling for 48 years – and that was only because he was too ill to continue.
From Vietnam (Ho Chi Minh) to China (Mao Tse Tung), North Korea (Kim Ill Sung) to Zimbabwe (Robert Mugabe), Angola (Augustino Neto) to Mozambique (Samora Machel), Ethiopia (Meles Zenawi) to Eritrea (Isias Afewarki) and Uganda (Yoweri Museveni), no leader of such a movement has yet retired from power. They die in office – except for those who are still alive. The Sandinistas in Nicaragua were removed by American power but have retained their leader, Daniel Ortega, and returned to power after a few years in the opposition.
Therefore, if Kagame respects term limits and leaves the presidency in 2017, he will have been the second (after Castro) to relinquish power voluntarily. Given that Castro left after 48 years and due to advanced age and illness, Kagame – who will be 60 years in 2017, will have pulled off a feat without precedent in the history of all the revolutionary movements.