Third termism in Rwanda: should Rwanda change the constitution?

By Ignatius Ssuuna - 1 October 2015 at 8:18 am

AP Photo/Ben Curtis

RWANDA- A debate on whether Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame should get himself a third term in 2017 after his final term in office expires or not has grown in number and vehemence in the recent months.

The country’s parliament has launched a process that could finally end the debate on the third term subject, by appointing a seven-member Constitution Review Commission to help in delivering the desired “continuity” after 2017.

The role of this commission, whose members are appointed by cabinet chaired by the President, is to study sections of the constitution which need modification to meet the current situation, along with the demands and the lawmakers.

Going by the timeline of events and views of senior ruling party officials, a third term for Kagame seems quite likely, political observers say.

A senior government official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Africa Times that President Kagame, at one time informed them that he was in a “dilemma” following increased pressure from his supporters, demanding to stand again.

“The President has either to listen to his supporters and stand again or succumb to pressures from foreign donors,” the official said.

The third term debate within the ruling party echelons had been considered a no-go-area in the past, till early this year, when the President, who is also the chairman of the ruling party, tabled it and encouraged people to debate about it, reported The East African Newspaper.

“Kagame must stand again!” Is the cry of many Rwandans from the capital Kigali and deep in the villages. “Where is corruption today, instability or ethnic violence that dominated the east African nation before Kagame took over?” is what these supporters on the street in Kigali ask.

They also credit President Kagame for transforming the genocide-ravaged economy by spurring economic growth at an average of 8 per cent annually over the past years and the country’s better use of aid funds from donor countries to deliver services to Rwandans.

His supporters also cite World Bank reports that have ranked the country as the easiest place to do business in sub-Saharan Africa, while Transparency International annual reports have shown Rwanda as one of the least corrupt countries on the continent.

But Rwanda’s donor partners including the US have warned President Kagame against amending the constitution, pointing out building strong institutions in a country like Rwanda, is what matters not what the president has achieved under his rule.

When the debate on a third term first attracted international media, a friend Laura, a teacher from the US called me to ask whether a number of Kagame’s supporters, had indeed wanted him to stand again.

In response, I told Laura that close to 4.3 million Rwandans had petitioned Parliament, demanding that article 101 of the constitution that limits the country’s presidents to only two terms in office be lifted.

Laura sat and bled. She was seething with anger and pain.  She cited too me stories published in local and International media previously where the President said it would be his biggest failure on his part if he does not identify a successor by 2017 when his last seven-year term ends.

She was murmuring curses to African people who abet creation of bad leaders and keep them in power even when they, the leaders, seem to be clearly not interested.

“What has become of Rwandans?,” Laura asked, before citing again article 101 of the Constitution which states that under no circumstance should the President be elected for more than two terms of seven years each.

“Why our people are so forgetful?” Rwanda has had dark history, leaders in the past did not believe in the rule of the law.  Laura feels “let down” by those agitating for the removal of term limits.

Perhaps having lived for so many years in Europe and America, Laura has become “foreign” and does not understand any more of how politics are done in Africa.

She says the problem with third term agitators is that today they don’t foresee the dangers of tampering with the constitution because the removal of term limits seems to work in their favor.

What will happen next time when the constitution is amended and they find the tables have turned on them? They will be the very first Rwandans to shout at the top of their voices for help. In neighboring Uganda, people who helped President Yoweri Museveni in scrapping off the term limits are now the same Ugandans fighting him, demanding he restores term limits.

Rwandans today who run down and up to marshal a third term project should remember that they are helping in creating a culture where good leaders stay and refuse to give in power democratically.

If the laws are changed for convenience, do those agitating for the third term really think they will stand upright in the winds when the laws are amended to target what they don’t want?

In Laura’s view, if President Kagame steps down in 2017, he will receive even a bigger support than in 1994 when he matched in Kigali and captured power after defeating a genocidal regime.

Because it’s not usual to find a man in Africa like President Kagame who does heroic things – stopping the genocide and even forgiving perpetrators, including those who killed his relatives – who steps down peacefully after his terms in office end without being pushed.

When Laura rested her case, I informed her that the President had in June told journalists during a press conference when a question on whether he would seek another term came up again that: “I am open to going, I am open to not going”. “After all, your President is human being too. Like many others in Africa,” Laura said, before she hung up. Like many others in Africa, Laura referred to many African leaders, who cling to power through manipulating their constitutions. That because the constitution, was made by citizens, the same citizens have powers to “change” it.

But many Rwandans say it’s hard to imagine Rwanda, without President Paul Kagame.

Frank Habineza, the president of the only considered opposition political party – Green Party of Rwanda – disagrees. “More new capable leaders in Rwanda will emerge,” he told journalists in Kigali during a press conference recently.

Habineza has gone to the Supreme Court in order to block plans to amend the constitution that will lift term limits.

Ignatius Ssuuna

Ignatius Ssuuna

Ignatius Ssuuna is an investigative journalist based in Rwanda.

He writes on human rights, conflicts and humanitarian crisis in the East African region. He writes on a freelance basis for DPA, IRIN, Zam Magazine and the Daily Monitor in Uganda. He was previously investigations editor at The NewTimes, Rwanda's English daily newspaper. He is a freelance researcher with Global Integrity, an independent nonprofit organization tracking governance and corruption trends around the world.

Twitter: @ignatiuskateera

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