Rwandan President Paul Kagame may be on his way to extend his stay in office after a second term. A process is under way to decide whether or not the constitution can be changed to allow him to seek a third term when his current term expires in 2017. The prospect of this change has divided Rwandans both inside and outside the country.
Kagame is credited with leading troops, which stopped the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi minority, and pulling the country’s economy out of the subsequent mess to make it one of the most successful economies in Africa.
Answering a question from a local journalist in 2010 on whether he would change the constitution to extend his stay in power, Kagame said “I don’t want to be involved in changing the constitution for that purpose, I would really hate it”. He also said that he had built strong institutions that would outlive him and his team. The president has also previously been quoted by the media saying that after 2017 he would be “around as a senior citizen in my country to make a contribution the way I will be able to…I will not be around as president come 2017”.
However, those opposed to the extension of his term in office, say President Kagame has since backtracked from his pledge. They say he has recently been ambiguous about his plans, leaving everybody to guess his next move.
He has instructed senior leaders of his ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front to start national debates with the view to extending his term in office. At the same time, he has sidelined party officials opposed to his plan.Consequently, he sacked Justice Minister Tharcisse Karugarama, for opposing changes to the constitution. The opposition says this is a warning to all those against his quest.
Concern about departure
There are also Rwandans who fear for the country’s future should Kagame stick to his promise to leave power. They include former interior minister Sheikh Musa Fazil Harelimana from the Ideal Democratic Party, a member of the coalition of parties which rules the country. He kicked off discussions in 2010 on presidential power after 2017 by suggesting a constitutional change to allow Kagame seek a third term. But Harelimana’s suggestion was construed by the president’s opponents as laying the ground for constitutional amendment with the ultimate end of keeping Kagame in power perpetually.
There are also many Rwandans, especially genocide survivors, who fear a repeat of what happened in 1994 should the country not have a strong man like Kagame.
The Rwandan constitution stipulates that a president of the republic is elected for a term of seven years which is renewable only once. President Kagame has been head of state since 2000. But analysts say he has been the de-facto ruler since 1994 when he was minister of defence and vice-president. His former comrade in arms Kayumba Nyamwasa who fled to South Africa in 2010 and has survived assassination attempts accuses him of turning the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front into a “one man show”.
Obliged to stay on
Analysts say President Kagame may be following in the footsteps of President Yoweri Museveni who has ruled neighbouring Uganda since 1986 and removed presidential term limits in 2005. Museveni then justified his actions saying that he had only responded to his people’s wish.
Other African leaders have extended their rule through several tricks such as interpreting the constitution to suit themselves or putting in place constitutions which allow them to stay in power indefinitely.
Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza is seeking a third term in office despite the constitution explicitly limiting the presidential terms to two.
Analysts say African presidents fear to leave power in view of what has happened to those who left and were later called to account for their time in power as it is happening to former Zambian President Rupiah Banda whose son is facing corruption charges and former Senegalese President Abdulaye Wade whose son is in jail for the same reasons.
Observers also point out that President Kagame could be worried about French and Spanish courts when he is no longer president. Forty military officers close to Kagame are facing warrants of arrest issued by a Spanish judge in 2008 over the deaths of Spanish citizens during the war which led to the 1994 genocide.
However, the nine warrants of arrest issued by a French judge in 2006 over the death of French crew killed in the plane which was shot down in 1994, igniting the 1994 Rwandan genocide, has been revoked by another judge after carrying out fresh investigations in 2010. However, the case is still open.
The Rwandan opposition suggest Spanish and French court cases and, the lack of a trustworthy successor, could compel Kagame to stay in power. General Kayumba, one of the nine people on the French court list says he is ready to spill the beans. He told journalists in 2012 that he was ready to say everything he knew since he was in charge of the military intelligence in 1994.
General Kayumba has been accused by Kigali of planning to wage war against Kagame’s government, and survived an assassination in South Africa. The general says “it is time we talk so that we can bring it (Kagame’s rule) to an end. Because there will otherwise be violence to change the regime”. Analysts say instead of extending the presidential term which would leave Kagame as “another African strongman”, the constitution could be changed to adopt the South African system, where the victorious party chooses the country’s leader. In the case of Rwanda, the party leader would be Kagame. President Kagame is likely to remain in power in one form or another as he did when he was defence minister and vice-president under President Pasteur Bizimungu.