Rwanda Supreme Court dismisses case against Kagame 3rd term; it's a battle that's never been won in Africa

Senegal's Wade oversaw a change that cut the presidential term from 7 to 5 years. When his turn came to leave, he had the court increase it back to 7.

RWANDA’S Supreme Court dismissed a case brought by the Democratic Green Party opposing changes to presidential term limits, saying the petition was “baseless.”

“The court finds that it’s normal to change the constitution in Rwanda and any other country as long as it’s through a referendum,” Chief Justice Sam Rugege said in his ruling.

Rwandan lawmakers in July backed with a 99% vote a petition calling for a referendum in which voters will be asked whether to amend the constitution and enable President Paul Kagame to extend his 15 years in power.

The opposition party was “very disappointed by the ruling,” Chairman Frank Habineza told reporters after the verdict. “We expected a win for Rwandan today. Our next move is to petition President Paul Kagame not to submit his candidature.”

It was always going to be an uphill task for the Green Party to get a different result.

In July, the Green Party alleged that it was having trouble finding a lawyer to handle its challenge. (READ: Rwanda opposition says can’t find lawyer for Kagame 3rd term case - one said ‘God was against it’).

A parliamentary committee tasked to canvass the nation for the people’s views, in August reported that it found “only 10” people who opposed possible constitutional changes on term limits. (READ: Only 10 Rwandans oppose Kagame third term, says parliamentary report).

Kagame has been president of  Rwanda since 2003, and had been vice president  since after he led a rebel army that ended the 1994 genocide in which over 800,000 people were killed.

When he ran for the presidency in 2003, he won with 95% of the vote.

He was re-elected in 2010 with a similarly resounding margin. The next elections are due in 2017.

From the trauma of genocide, Kagame has been painted as a guarantor of stability and economic development, earning praise from donors—and his supporters say many in Rwanda view the prospect of his departure as a step into the unknown.

Critics say however that he has silenced the opposition and the media.

Despite his record, the push toward lifting term limits is seen as fitting in a familiar African pattern, of reformist leaders who in their early years pass progressive constitutions and laws, then roll back most of the enlightened elements after they consolidate, and cling to power.

In addition, courts have not been happy hunting grounds for those seeking to preserve term limits or trying to stop presidents-for-life projects.

Like election petitions against incumbents on the continent, none has succeeded in recent times.

One of the more notable recent legal tussles over presidential terms took place in Senegal in 2012.

President Abdoulaye Wade introduced shorter terms and limits of tenure soon after his election in 2001 as key reform components of a new constitution he helped usher in. Essentially, these actions were a direct response to the 18 year rule of his predecessor, Abdou Diouf and Wade’s long stay in the opposition. (READ: The push for executive term limits in Africa: Tracing the peoples’ effort to entrench democratic values).

However at the end of his constitutional term in 2012, when his turn came to quit in respect of the constitutional provisions he had helped created, Wade turned to the High Court to revert to the old seven-year term system and secured constitutional clearance to enable him run again on the premise that the new rules had commenced after his ascendency and as such did not apply to him.

Wade succeeded on both fronts but lost the March 2012 election to Macky Sall. Sall can enjoy a maximum two seven year terms (14 years) due to Wade’s machinations, but has said he will have them slashed to five.

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