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Rwanda's Presidential Dilemma

By Jonathan Beloff

The start of the 2017 Rwandan presidential election commenced over the last few months with current Rwandan President Paul Kagame appearing to have the legal ability to campaign for an additional term in office. However, this will likely create international backlash as donors have already spoken against any altering of the constitution.

Since the end of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, also known as the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi, Kagame has represented the main political force within Rwanda. During his first six years in power, he officially held the position of vice president. In 2000, political pressures forced then acting President Pasteur Bizimungu to step down paving the way for Kagame to finally publicly hold the most politically important office in the country. The 2003 and 2010 presidential elections not only cemented Kagame’s position as president, but also as the leader of Rwanda.

However, his election victories are coupled by international claims of voter intimidation and arrest of opposition leaders. Despite these accusations, Kagame’s ability to retain power stems from a combination of how Rwandans are willing to continue the political status quo and hold a genuine belief in Kagame’s abilities to further Rwanda’s development.

The debate surrounding Kagame’s ability to run for a third term begins with how the Rwandan Constitution, specifically Article 101, which prevents any president from holding office for more than two seven-year terms. During my first visit to Rwanda in 2008 and again in 2012, Rwandan civilians and government officials commented that this decision, to restrict presidential term limits, was a response to prevent a repetition of the previous Juvenal Habyarimana (1973-1994) dictatorship. However, the constitution still contains enough flexibility to make this subject more complicated through Article 193, which allows the constitution to be altered if two-thirds of parliament, the Senate and Chamber of Deputies votes in favor of the modification.

The recent events relating to altering the constitution address specifically Kagame’s limited remaining time as president. The origins of the debate are important as the Rwandan government views it coming from Rwandans after 3.7 million civilians signed a petition calling for the parliament to extend term limits for Kagame. This led to a cycle of meetings among the ruling Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) political party with its allied smaller parties; public forums led by Rwandan Senator Tito Rutaremara, which recorded only 10 people against altering the term restrictions; and demonstrations calling for Kagame to say in power.

Critics of the Rwandan government and Kagame question the legitimacy of the signed petition, as Rwanda’s civil society is underdeveloped and harassed by government security officials. Additionally, critics also believe that political pressures, threats, and dismissals of opposition government officials against anyone who does not support extending term limits. Recently, the Rwandan Supreme Court voted in favor for the changing of the constitution after challenges by the Democratic Green Party brought a lawsuit against the government claiming that any altering of Article 101 was illegal. It seems ever more likely that the constitution will be altered so Kagame can seek (and in all likelihood win) an additional term as president.

It is rather certain based on my eight years traveling in and researching Rwanda that many Rwandans would or already support a continuation of Kagame as president. However, altering the constitution for Kagame will lead to consequences beyond Rwanda’s borders. Rwanda’s reliance on the international community for development aid and budget support adds a level of complexity in its decision-making. Donor foreign aid to Rwanda composes an estimated 38.1 percent of total government revenue based from the 2014-2015 fiscal federal budget.

The leading contributor is the United States, which annually provides over $100 million to support infrastructure for healthcare, education, development as well as military assistance. The U.S. is also arguably the most important ally for the Rwandan government since the genocide. Some academics label the relationship in terms of the ‘genocide guilt card,’ which describes how Rwandan leaders use the responsibility felt by Western leaders after their inaction to end the 1994 genocide as a political tool to gain political leverage and financial assistance.

Still, the close relationship between the two nations did not stop the United States warning Kagame against seeking an additional term. For American officials, any extension of his current tenure would harm Rwanda’s political and social growth as well as damage existing governing institutions. By having the U.S., Rwanda’s most important advocate, come out against altering the constitution might have serious ripple effects with other donors such as the United Kingdom, Netherlands, Germany, Belgium, and Sweden. The donors can withhold foreign aid assistance to try to deter altering the constitution.

Rwanda is preparing for the continuation of President Kagame even if it brings international-related consequences such as foreign aid withdrawal. The response strategy began after Rwanda was accused for interfering in Congolese security matters by supporting the M23 rebel movement in 2012, which resulted in foreign aid withdrawal by donors. In response to the foreign aid withdrawal, government officials introduced and increased the presence of the agaciro ideology, which holds the tenants of self-determination alongside individualism and self-dignity to achieve development. Rwandan leaders including President Kagame are now instructing citizens to prepare for the financial ramifications such as government shortfalls if donors protest the altering of the constitution.

This atmosphere is quickly acclimating for Rwandans to unite and focus their attention on becoming more self-reliant in order to reduce the nation’s dependence on international assistance, as, more often than not, it becomes a mechanism of foreign interference. It is this element of the presidential debate that donors are perhaps not fully understanding in their calls for Kagame not to seek a third term. The Rwandan government is directing the argument from the legality of constitutional change and how additional terms might create abuses of power to how this decision is between the wishes of Rwandans against the desires of Western nations, institutions, and donors who wish for their beliefs to trump all others. Such rhetoric will only create further distrust amongst Rwandans, who already feel wariness against the world for their abandonment during the genocide more than two decades ago.

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Jonathan Beloff is a PhD student at the School of Oriental and African Studies conducting research on the African Great Lakes region. Since 2008, he has travelled an performed research in Rwanda on the Rwandan Genocide and Rwanda's foreign relations, economic and political development. 

[Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]

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