THE United States hit out again at Rwandan President Paul Kagame’s decision to run for a third term, saying it was “deeply disappointed” and concerned by the move.
“With this decision, President Kagame ignores a historic opportunity to reinforce and solidify the democratic institutions the Rwandan people have for more than 20 years labored so hard to establish,” State Department spokesman John Kirby said in a statement.
Kagame, once a darling of the West, said Friday he would run again in line with a constitutional amendment which won overwhelming backing in a referendum.
The December 18 referendum saw voters massively approve by 98.3% constitutional amendments allowing Kagame, 58, to run for an exceptional third seven-year term in 2017.
Washington and the European Union have consistently expressed deep concern at any such move.
“The United States believes constitutional transitions of power are essential for strong democracies and that efforts by incumbents to change rules to stay in power weaken democratic institutions,” Kirby said in the strongly-worded statement.
Change to favour one individual
“We are particularly concerned by changes that favour one individual over the principle of democratic transitions.
“As Rwanda moves toward local elections this year, presidential elections next year, and parliamentary elections in 2018, we call upon the government of Rwanda to ensure and respect the rights of its citizens to exercise their freedom of expression, conscience, and peaceful assembly—the hallmarks of true democracies.”
Kagame says will run for third term in 2017 after Rwanda law change, but doesn’t want to be president for life.
Kagame, 58, has governed the East African country since 2000, after he led his Rwanda Patriotic Army/Front rebels that ended the 1994 genocide in which 800,000 people were killed.
The amendment would also enable him to stand in two subsequent elections for the future, with a reduced term limit of five years, potentially retaining the country’s top job until 2034.
“I do not think our aim is to have a president for life, nor is it what I would want,” Kagame said on Friday. “Sooner rather than later, this office will be transferred from one person to another in a manner that will serve a purpose, not merely set an example, whether for ourselves or others.
The latest US and other criticisms of the Kagame third term are now unlikely to alter the course of events. In the months ahead of the constitution change, Rwandan officials and maintained that there was only one authority on the issue – the Rwandan people.
Kagame himself weighed into the debate, and gave the first clear sign that he would stand again early December when, at a meeting of his ruling party, lashed out at “other nations” for interfering in his country’s internal affairs after their criticism of the third term project.
“We can be good friends, we can agree to disagree but there is a line when it comes to the interest of Rwandans,” Kagame said.
“They tell us we should have the right to make our own choices, but our choices then become defined as manoeuvring,” he said in quotes relayed by the RPF’s Twitter account
With the December 18 vote, and Kagame now publicly having said he will stand again, the third term horse has definitively bolted from the stable.
Opposition cries foul
The country’s tiny opposition Green Party, having lost a case to stop the referendum, protested it was impossible to organise a counter campaign and there had not enough time and space for debate on the third term and referendum.
The date for the referendum only announced on December 8, just 10 days before the event, and the draft of the changes “only published publicly less than one day ahead of the vote”, it said.
“The opposition would have won,” Green party president Frank Habineza claimed in a statement.
“The Democratic Green Party of Rwanda will not give up on the struggle to make Rwanda a vibrant democracy,” he said.
Attempts by other African leaders to extend their stays in office have sparked protests in recent years. In Burkina Faso, mass demonstrations forced Blaise Compaore to quit in 2014, after almost three decades in power.
Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza’s disputed re-election in July spurred worsening violence in which at least 400 people have died.
That the constitution change went off without drama in Rwanda, analysts say, is indicative of how deeply seated the memories of the genocide still are, and how little the country has devolved to imagine life without Kagame.
Critics also say that there was more room for dissent in Burkina Faso, Burundi, than in Rwanda, where the ruling RPF is more entrenched and dominant.