AP Photo/Ben Curtis
President Paul Kagame’s Rwanda has defied international pressure and followed in the footsteps of other countries in the region by changing the constitution – enabling the former rebel commander and leader of the ruling party holds onto power. Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni scrapped term limits in 2005 and recently, Burundi President Pierre Nkurunziza, retained power after serving two terms, claiming that his initial term was not a result of direct elections and as such does not count in regard to the two term limitation in the constitution.
Initially, Kagame had seemed ambiguous, if not uninterested; but probably, he was ambiguous on purpose. So, what does this referendum portend for Rwanda? Foremost, the constitution has been amended for the sole benefit of President Paul Kagame. Under the revised law, he possibly can rule up to 2034. He is free to run for a seven year term in 2017 and then again for two more terms of five years each after the seven year term expires!
So, whatever happens, Rwandans and the international community will not see Kagame’s back as far as the politics of Rwanda goes. In effect, the amendment to the constitution, implies that for those determined to see Kagame leave office; that wish can not be realised anytime soon. Even if at some point he were to voluntarily relinquish power; without doubt he would remain pulling the strings from the background. Alternatively, for the opposition, mostly in exile, they will likely have to seek other means, beyond the democratic process.
Secondly, the events in Kigali, which American ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power described as maneuvers, reinforce the fact that strongman rule endures in Rwanda, and the several African nations that have undergone similar political manipulations or changes – the expunging of constitutional clauses that were originally crafted to ensure political stability – are facing the same issues. Term limits, in these fragile states, were instituted as insurance policies against the problem of leaders going rogue after ruling for so long, however they have not helped.
In such nations, the notion of popular choice in politics is illusory. Many factors prevent the possibility of free choice. Yet, the Kigali regime insists that the Rwandan people have the sole responsibility of determining how they are ruled and led. Indeed, they should! In the years gone by, it was only in absolute dictatorships that leaders won an election by 98-99 percent. Under the current circumstances, for a country like Rwanda, without term limits, the possibility of change at the top is so remote.
Clearly, avenues for political dissent have historically been non existent. Internal challenges to the status quo are always certainly quashed with merciless and ruthless efficiency. Challenging the status quo can only be done from abroad, which so far has only registered humble gains.
Nevertheless, despite the unanimous decision at the referendum, and the public proclamations during the recent ruling Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) politburo where members put up a public demonstration of “begging” the first lady to prevail upon her “reluctant” husband to stay on beyond 2017, there is an obvious schism within the Tutsi politico-military elite in RPF that has controlled Rwanda since 1994.
Recent prosecution statements in the ongoing trial of General Frank Rusagara and former Presidential Guard Commander Colonel Tom Byabagamba, points to the unease among some of the historical leaders of the ruling party in regard to the working methods of Kagame and by implication, his long stay in power. They have been accused, among other things, of undermining the authority of Kagame and inciting the population into rebellion. This follows the much publicised fallout between Kagame and his old comrades led by General Kayumba Nyamwasa, a former army chief of staff and intelligence chief, now organised against his rule in the Rwanda National Congress (RNC).
For the political opposition, they are at a stage where they believe that Kagame can no longer be convinced to step down, but has to be brought down. It is this kind of thinking that most probably informs the concern that has been voiced by the international community, notably donors like the United States and the European Union. The cost of political failure in Rwanda is too much as the world witnessed in the1994 genocide.
Yet for President Kagame, a lot is at stake. It is unlikely that he can quit power or relinquish control of the ruling party; the Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF). Several Rwanda analysts point to the possibility of vindictive opponents both local and international trying to settle scores, given the fact that his rule and rise to power has been so divisive and left many holding a grudge.
More so, through his control of the RPF and Crystal Ventures Limited (CVL), Kagame and his close supporters have at their disposal an estimated $500 Million fortune, according to the Financial Times. It is inconceivable that once he has stepped out of power and completely ceded or lost his tight grip on the instruments of the state, he would be able to hold on to this vast resource envelope. Crystal Ventures, virtually, is a monopoly in many sectors, and derives its success in business mainly from the RFP’s hold on political power and the vast patronage networks therein. Like most great fortunes that have arisen out of political power, and opaque business practices, CVL would most likely not thrive under a more strident and openly accountable business environment.
President Kagame has foreign advisors including Tony Blair. It is unlikely that they would advise him to relinquish power and if they did, it is improbable he would oblige. In any case, his departure from office would likely imply the end of their association with the state of Rwanda as advisors to the head of state. For Blair, whose wife’s legal firm Omnia Strategy secured the release of Kagame’s intelligence chief Karenzi Karake from detention in London at a £1 Million bail, and later managed to “fix” his release from his legal troubles, more would be at stake – a lot more than seeking to help give Rwandans a leg up.
Yet the Rwandan people who would be best placed to ensure change and retain a stable political environment are not in position to express free will, and beyond that, the majority fall in the “low information voter” category whose electoral choices in any case, can be self defeating. As a result, the constitution has been amended. It is clearly designed for the benefit of one individual. One can therefore imply the entrenching of a cult of personality around Kagame and shows that the politics of the African strong man endures in Rwanda.