Kagame’s headache: To bow out or hang on?

President Kagame’s supporters in Rwanda.

What you need to know:

On February 8, 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.”

Baffling results
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. 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. 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.”

Let intellectual dogs loose
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.”

Falling into the trap
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.

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. 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.”

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