There is no more suspense over Rwandan President Paul Kagame’s intention to stand for a third term in 2017.
After his path was cleared of legal hurdles following a successful referendum last December in which the Yes to the constitutional change won 98.3 per cent, Kagame said he had accepted the people’s call to continue leading the country beyond the current term. “You have asked me to lead the country after 2017. Given the importance you ascribe to this matter, I can only accept,” he said in a televised New Year message to the nation.
The new constitution allows him to stay at the helm of Rwanda up to 2034 when he will be 77. The opposition, however, remains skeptical and believes Kagame will keep on shifting goal posts until 2034 and possibly beyond. By announcing that he will stand in the elections in 2017 which no one doubts he will win, Kagame has thrown into the dustbin the promise he made in the past that he would “ not be around as president ” after 2017 but would be “around as a senior citizen” in his country “to make a contribution the way I will be able to”.
Keeping the country guessing
The new constitution allows him to seek a third seven-year term followed by a five-year term that can be renewed only once. Until his acceptance speech on New Year, the president had not officially declared his intention to seek a term extension but said he was ready to be convinced to stay in power. His predecessor will, however, only be elected for a five year term renewable once. President Kagame kept the decision to seek a third term in 2017 close to his chest for quite some time, but hinted at his intention to stay on when he wrote on twitter that “If I ran again, I would do more of what I am doing to improve the well-being of the citizens of Rwanda”.
The opposition which is mainly based in Europe and North America, however, brushed aside this promise, saying that he has nothing more to offer to the country and cannot achieve what he hasn’t since 1994. After stopping the genocide and leading the Rwandan Patriotic Front to power, President Kagame became minister of defence and deputy president before becoming president in 2003. The opposition says he still controlled Rwanda even in non-presidential capacity. During his first and second term, Kagame said he would never change the constitution in order to stay in power. “I would hate it”, he said, adding that he had built institutions that would outlive him.
Changes to the constitution
Kagame’s journey to a third term started with the collection of signatures of more than 3.7 million adult Rwandans who called for change of the constitution to allow him extend seek an extension of his time in office. A modified constitution drafted by a team of experts was passed by the two parliament chambers of parliament. The Supreme Court ruled against the Democratic Green Party which was for the upholding of the term limits as per the existing constitution, paving the way for the organisation of a referendum. Some analysts say the Green Party move instead of challenging the change of the status quo, increased the credibility of the constitutional change process.
Changes were also made to terms of office of high ranking government officials. For example, the senators’ term was reduced from eight years non-renewable to five years renewable once, except for former Heads of State who are not subject to term limitation. The term of office of the Chief Justice and his deputy, the Prosecutor-General and his deputy, was also reduced from eight years non-renewable to five years renewable once only.
Rejection of West’s criticism
After Kagame’s speech, a spokesman of the US State Department, John Kirby, expressed his country’s disappointment saying that “The United States is deeply disappointed that President Paul Kagame has announced his intention to run for a third term in office.”
The United Kingdom and the USA, Rwanda’s staunch allies and the European Union also criticised the referendum. A press release from the Foreign & Commonwealth Office said: “the way in which it was conducted has damaged Rwanda’s international reputation. The short timeframe between the announcement of the referendum and the vote did not allow sufficient time for voters to consider and debate the proposed changes and for the case for and against to be made. A copy of the revised constitution was only made available less than one day ahead of the referendum. “Changing the constitution for the benefit of the incumbent risks serious damage to long-term stability and Rwanda’s reputation as a world leader,” the statement added.
A US statement issued on 19th December said:“we regret that the arrangements for the referendum failed to provide sufficient time and opportunity for political debate on the merits of the proposed provisions.”
In the same vein, the EU high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, Federica Mogherini, said “The adoption of provisions that can apply only to one individual weakens the credibility of the constitutional reform process as it undermines the principle of democratic change of government”. She based her argument on Article 23 of the African Charter of Democracy, Elections and Governance which, in her words, says that illegal means of accessing or maintaining power constitute an unconstitutional change of government and shall draw appropriate sanctions by the African Union.
Kagame distanced himself from those who said that he was seeking a life presidency and brushed aside those who equalled voting for constitutional change to voting for dictatorship saying that “if a dictatorship amounts to the people making independent choices like security, stability, women empowerment and general national progress, then critics were making a mistake, perhaps, blindly”. He said “Rwandans chose to do what they did and they seem to be happy with it… for outsiders, they may also continue being unhappy about what majority of Rwandans chose to do…we all have our lives to live and we have the right to choose how we live our lives, Rwandans are not going to live their lives according to the choices of outsiders.”
President Kagame is credited for stopping the genocide in which close to a million ethnic minority Tutsis and moderate Hutus were massacred as well as the fast development that the country has witnessed since he came to power. Opponents, however, accuse him of stifling the freedoms of assembly and speech and being behind the assassination of prominent opponents, including that of former Rwandan intelligence chief, Patrick Karegeya. (F.K.)