PRESIDENT Paul Kagame has said Rwanda’s constitution shouldn’t be changed to modify how long a president can serve.
“I belong to the group that doesn’t support change of the constitution,” Kagame told reporters Thursday in the capital, Kigali. “But in a democratic society, debates are allowed and they are healthy.”
Rwanda’s constitution prevents Kagame from running in 2017 presidential elections in the East African nation.
The 57-year- old president has served two terms of seven years, the maximum allowed by law.
“I’m open to going or not going depending on the interest and future of this country,” he said.
As Rwanda begins commemorations for the 21st anniversary of the genocide Thursday, that future will be at the top of most its people’s minds.
For Kagame, it is a tricky choice and what he does is likely to be watched more closely than what any other leader who confronted term limits in Africa did.
Seeking to make the the decision on his stay a broader one, nearly two years ago Kagame set up a committee of his ruling Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) to consult and recommend a course of action. Though the report of the committee has not been made public, sources familiar with its content say that it recommended that the constitution be amended.
Foreign investors and markets, are also seen as favouring a Kagame continuation, viewing his presence as reassuring, as he is likely to continue his hardline stance against corruption, which had made Rwanda one of the least corrupt nations in Africa according to Transparency International.
He has also overseen reforms that have made Rwanda a regional topper in the World Bank’s “Ease of Doing Business” Index.
Kagame’s Achilles heel
For a president who got 93% of the vote in the August 2010 elections, in all probability if the matter was left to the people to choose, and given that politics in Rwanda is not as contentious as in Zambia, Kenya or Nigeria, the majority would probably vote for a Kagame stay.
Even though critics paint Kagame as a despot who brooks no dissent, having introduced the most universal health care insurance system in Africa, and notched up the sharpest drop in infant mortality ever recorded in human history, a strong case can be made that he has a concrete record on which an appreciative people would vote to keep him in office.
However, Kagame’s strong points are also his Achilles heel. He is a forceful man who doesn’t suffer fools gladly. A teetotaller, workaholic, former guerrilla leader, he probably has one of the longest address book of Fortune 500 CEOs of any other leader on the continent.
He is the one African president who has cornered a niche global market where he is a rock star.
He co-chairs the ITU’s Broadband Commission, partly based on his reputation as a wired president. He is a regular at the World Economic Forum in Davos, and hangs out with the famous and rich of the world; including former president Bill Clinton and Microsoft chairman Bill Gates, he visits former president George Bush, and most of them drop in on his leafy village home Muhazi.
President Kagame with R&B hip hop musician Usher (L) and composer and producer Quincy Jones – who has a lakeside property in Rwanda - at a Clinton Global Citizen Awards Ceremony event.
Some analysts that the way has leveraged all these things to build his presidential clout, means too many of Rwanda’s post-genocide achievements are based on his individual pluckiness.
Rwanda’s institutional depth, remains largely untested, and it is doubtful the country will function the way it does without his towering figure.
The need for his firm and steady hand, is one reason his supporters give for him ruling beyond 2017. However, if he had invested enough in building successors, he would have done so and Rwanda would not be in its current dilemma.
By him staying on because there is no replacement, would effectively be profiting from his own fail grade at succession planning.
Rwanda doesn’t have a vice president, with the Prime Minister performing the role of the president’s deputy. Yet since Kagame was elected president in 2000, the current PM Anastase Murekezi is the third. Although Bernard Makuza was in office for 10 years, the job of PM in Rwanda is generally a short tour of duty, not allowing them to develop the skills to be pretenders to the throne.
Top on Twitter
Kagame is also the one president who has a huge international fan base, and with 906,000 followers, he has the largest following on Twitter of any African leader. But the legions of his enemies are also big. Both Kagame-cheering and Kagame-bashing are cottage industries in their own right.
His enemies, though, have always lost – finding it a hard job to run against his record, and they are angry. They are waiting for their moment, and right now they think it is about to be handed to them when a constitutional amendment removes term limits.
Their headlines and columns might well already have been rewritten. If he stays put, there will be an avalanche of “we told you so; the real strongman in Kagame has been revealed.”
Though he scoffs at the idea that anyone but Rwandans should have a say on the country’s future, in reality post-genocide Rwanda is a country built partly on the complex fabric of the world’s troubled and guilty conscience for having done little to stop the 1994 genocide in which nearly one million, most of them Tutsi, were slaughtered.
Crafting a nation that actually functions from the depths of the genocide graveyard, is a big part of “Brand Kagame”; the man who did what in 1994 looked like the impossible. It has opened doors for him and Rwanda in the world, and ensured that even at the height of criticism about Kigali’s meddling and proxy wars in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), much like Israel, there was always support for Kigali even in the UN Security Council to ensure it wasn’t buried into a sea of sanctions.
Known for being a man who mostly acts out of conviction, it will indeed be unusual that Kagame, as he said, doesn’t want the constitution changed, but would still see it amended, and then go on to stand for elections again in the new dispensation. This would be a new Kagame, who is swayed by populist opinion, even if he disagrees with it.
It is a big gamble, because the biggest assets he brings to the Rwanda presidency – being a man of his word, and someone who looks at the presidency as public service not a personal power trip – would be lost and he could easily become toxic.
He would no longer be able to marshal the attributes that his supporters banked on to give him a third course of the presidency.
Stepping down, though, would leave him with the moral authority to influence the direction of the country, much like Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere did, and even stage a comeback should the country be plunged in a future crisis.
If he fails to play this right, he won’t be the first – or last – leader to shoot for the hilltop, when he could have gunned for the stars.
-UPDATED: Corrects the reference to Kagame’s country home as being Urugwiro. That is where the president’s office is located. The country home is in Muhizi. Also more accurately states that there have been three, not four as previously indicated, PMs who have served under Kagame’s presidency.