Now Rwanda’s transition hinges on amending law to keep Kagame
Source: The East African
The transition question in Rwanda has shifted from whether President Paul Kagame will leave office when his second term expires in 2017, to if the Constitution will be amended to enable him to extend his stay in power.
The president made this clear when, in response to a journalist’s question, he said: “On the debate on whether I will retire in 2017, and you asking me now, the answer is yes, because that is the law currently"
"You obey a Constitution that is in place. But the Constitution... has a life… you respect it because it is in operation, meaning it could be a different law that you will need to respect come 2017.”
According to the president, the choice of the country’s leader lies with Rwandans.
“But… if you claim that the choice the people is a wrong one, then what do you want to see my people do to qualify their leader as being legitimate?” he questioned.
In the past few months President Kagame has been greeted at public events with pleas from citizens urging him to stay on beyond 2017.
But a scholar in Kigali notes that if the president benefits from any changes in the Constitution it will be seen as his own making.
“If, for example, people were to clamour for a change in the constitutional dispensation after his departure that allows him to return, that would be seen as a genuine political change. But any move now to change the Constitution that makes him an immediate beneficiary would be tantamount to opportunism,” said the scholar.
Analysts say the president is duty bound to tell the citizens calling for him to stay beyond 2017 that all is well, and that he has laid a strong foundation for stability.
“Otherwise, if he agrees to stay, he will be sending out a message that he has not succeeded in making people feel secure,” said a university lecturer.
Could he have planned to stay? Observers say it is difficult to tell if the president harboured ambitions to amend the Constitution or if he has been forced by circumstances from within or without the country.
Some scholars say the president may not have had a position on the matter, but was first weighing the situation before making a decision.
“I have a feeling we are about to lose an opportunity to change the course of our history. What we have achieved thus far is going to be seen only in opportunistic terms,” a senior scholar of politics said.
The president’s former principal private secretary, Dr David Himbarato, weighed in with his views.
"Paul Kagame’s continued leadership in Rwanda beyond what the Constitution allows will be a real nightmare for the country for years to come. If he changes the Constitution to run again, it will not be for one extra term but life-presidency. Yet he has already run the country indirectly and directly for over 24 years since 1994.”
Prof Elijah Mushemeza of Makerere University, who follows RPF politics closely said: “The transition is much bigger than the individual. But if it is looking at replacing him as an individual then that is not a transition. It should look at the generation — transiting to younger generation that still promotes the ideals of the RPF.”
However, observers say that, with many of founders of RPF languishing in isolation and exile after espousing a different political narrative, President Kagame remains the only member of the old guard actively involved with politics in Rwanda.
During the RPF national executive committee meeting on February 8, President Kagame tasked RPF members to come up with a formula that would deliver “change, continuity and stability.”
“I don’t see any contradiction between what these people [ordinary citizens] are saying and the principles I have stated. Actually what they say falls within these three principles… it’s about continuing with progress, it’s about stability and maybe even if not so much, change,”
When he raised the principles of “change, stability and continuity,”
President Kagame says, “I was steering the debate away from the individual, the person to the real substance because we are talking about a country, a nation…”
There is a growing belief though that President Kagame is taking the route of his Ugandan counterpart President Yoweri Museveni. When Museveni came to power in 1986, he criticised African dictators who overstayed their welcome and attributed the continent’s poverty and misrule to dictators clinging to power.
President Museveni was among African leaders who were branded the “new breed” by the West in early and mid-1990s because of their reforms of governance and the economy. They included the late Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and Kagame himself.
Fast forward to 2003, when President Museveni’s constitutional term approached an end, he was torn between leaving behind the legacy of a strongman or a statesman.
At the end of the day, he opted for the former and changed the Ugandan Constitution to remove presidential term limits.