THE debate on change and continuity in Rwanda – particularly whether the constitution should be amended to allow President Paul Kagame run for a third term in 2017 when his current one ends – continues.
Some commentators, ignoring the country’s tragic history are ending up placing the nation in a “one size fits all” democratic narrative with regard to term limits.
The recent article by Charles Onyango-Obbo in Mail & Guardian Africa, which made the case for term limits not to be lifted, ‘ I’m open to going or not going’, Rwanda’s Kagame reveals, but says term limits shouldn’t be changed” made the debate flat without regard of Rwanda’s unique environment.
He acknowledged that Rwanda’s institutional depth is untested, and it is not certain many policy iniatiatives may last beyond president Kagame - which is true.
Most of our institutions are young. However, they have still been tested and passed: The Auditor General’s office, Ombudsman’s office, the Parliament, the Senate, Judiciary and many other have done a terrific job, and are respected internationally for it.
Nevertheless, the same institutions are too young to imagine that their efficiency should have become a culture by now. Far from that. They need more time to evolve and develop into stronger, stable and sustainable institutions.
In a developing country like Rwanda, you either have a strong leadership or strong institutions. We are blessed to have had a strong leadership in president Kagame, a rarity among many African countries whose leadership is wanting - and so is their development. Changing such a leader given our context, and in the absence of strong institutions, is national suicide we can’t afford.
Onyango-Obbo also alleges that the president scores a “failing grade at succession planning” insinuating that, if he had mentored a successor, the debate today about term limits would be irrelevant. Far from it.
It is exemplary leadership, amidst an extremely heinous environment – past and present - and a blurred future, that makes Kagame’s succession quite scary to most Rwandese, save for foreigners.
The 1994 genocide tore Rwanda apart. (Photo/Getty Images).
Moreover the issue of mentoring a successor is a flawed argument for many reasons.
First, as the tresident mentioned in his interview recently with Juene Afrique, doing so would mean that he is dictating to Rwandese who should be their next leader; which would be considered undemocratic as Rwandese have the right to choose one, not one to be chosen for them.
Secondly Rwanda is not a monarchy where a king/queen is replaced by his/her anointed heir apparent. Besides, such a successor has to emerge naturally and be seen to be worthy by Rwandese. That none has emerged so far cannot be the fault of the president. It happens.
Moreover, Rwanda has had three Prime Ministers under President Kagame’s leadership. The first, Bernard Makuza, who served close to ten years, is now the President of the senate, the second highest position after the president according to our constitution.
The argument that “being a PM in Rwanda is generally a short tour of duty, not allowing them to develop the skills to be pretenders to the throne”… is a distortion of the reality on the ground.
Our PMs oversee government business as set out by our constitution. They are not chosen to be heir-apparent. If they are to be, they have to measure up to the task, and be seen to be. The president has not and doesn’t limit their capacities in any way.
Every Rwandese has the same and equal chance to hold the highest office in the land. But they must merit it, and Rwandese must be convinced that every such citizen who puts themselves forward, is presidential material. But if the candidates failed to manage even the sectors entrusted to them, who would gamble to entrust them to manage a country as difficult as ours?
The people will amend constitution
Onyango-Obbo argued one reason Kagame has managed to lead, is that that “his enemies”, who criticise him “”have always lost – finding it a hard job to run against his record and they are angry.
“…they are waiting for the right moment to be handed to them when a constitutional amendment removes term limits” to allow him continue.
Now, it is precisely because of this record against all odds, that Rwandese want president Kagame to sustain and scale-up to even a high level the job he is doing.
For the record, in reality it is the people of Rwanda who have fended these enemies off; and it is these very people that will amend their constitution to allow the sustenance of president Kagame’s exemplary record; enemy or no enemy. What is important for us Rwandese is what is in our interest.
Not Nyerere or Tanzania
Onyango-Obbo argues that, …”stepping down leave will 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”.
First, Nyerere ruled Tanzania from independence in 1964 to 1985 a total of 21 years. He reigned over a united country void of genocide that tore Rwanda’s social, economic, as well political fabric apart.
Rwanda is not Tanzania, or any other country for that matter, and comparisons simplify what is otherwise a very complex environment indeed.
For instance, the abnormal country Rwanda is not yet out of the woods, though it is on course to do so. Secondly, the unity and reconciliation project central to the survival of Rwanda as a nation state is such that Kagame has had the moral authority to manage it, and be trusted by most parties in the country to do so. This project would certainly leave with him.
Furthermore, once a leader in Africa leaves office, chances of coming back when the country is in crisis are remote if not impossible as the office holder will make sure that the outgoing leader is out of sight. Many examples of this scenario abound in Africa.
Moreover, given our past context, the issue of national crisis is a reality, and not a possibility. If so, why allow it in the first case? Rwandese know Rwanda best, and think a one size fits all approach would spell doom for our country - and irreversibly too.
This has informed our choice for the continuity project, and the rest will have to respect our choices. We are ultimately the sole beneficiaries and sole losers either way. We can’t lose what we can afford not to - Kagame and Rwanda.
*The author is an expert in Finance and Economics. He was previously Minister of Commerce, Industry, Cooperatives and Tourism, and also Minister of Finance in the government of Rwanda.