Rwanda: Term Limit Controversy Masks Real Issues

The decision by Rwanda’s Supreme Court to allow a popular referendum on the lifting of presidential term limits has all but cleared President Paul Kagame’s path to a third term in office. Rwanda’s constitution currently restricts the president to two seven-year terms, the second of which President Kagame began in 2010, but the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) has sought to remove those limits ahead of the 2017 election. Despite serious questions surrounding whether an amendment to the term limit clause is allowed by the constitution, the RPF has acted under the assumption of legality and ignored or discredited arguments to the contrary, drawing international criticism.

After surviving the challenge from the Democratic Green Party in the Rwanda’s Supreme Court, the term limit amendment will be considered legal as long as it is approved by both a parliamentary vote and a popular referendum. The amendment has already passed an initial vote by the RPF-dominated Rwandan parliament, which voted nearly unanimously in favor of removing the presidential term limit on July 14, 2015. The parliamentarians were responding to a petition signed by an astonishing 3.7 million Rwandans (72 percent of registered voters) demanding that the term limit be lifted. There are serious concerns that many of the signatories were coerced or intimidated into giving their support and an additional review by parliament is underway, but its outcome is not in question. Rwandan officials also completed a “national consultation” to gauge support for the amendment ahead of a national referendum, which would serve as the final step in amending the term limit. In a response indicative of the constrained opposition environment, the national consultation, which lasted for several weeks, found just ten opponents of the third term amendment. While Kagame’s track record of economic and development successes has made his presidency very popular within the country, it is hard to believe that only ten of the people surveyed objected to Kagame seeking a third term.

Western governments and members of the international media have criticized the RPF’s efforts to prolong Kagame’s rule by changing the constitution, but have mostly failed to draw attention to the political environment that has made any alternative unviable. Criticism of extended rule in Rwanda ignores the fact that a term limit would be ineffective at bringing about political change, as long as the opposition has no avenue for expression inside a constrained political environment and as long as the country’s institutions remain dependent on continued RPF leadership.

Confusing cause and effect

The retention of term limits would not improve the opposition’s ability to organize within Rwanda or reduce the RPF’s stranglehold on political discourse. Forcing Kagame to step aside would create an opening, but only his political allies would be in a position to fill it.

For years, the RPF’s political opponents have been jailed, assassinated, or forced to resign or flee the country. Recently, two members of Rwanda’s parliament and a member of the East African Legislative Assembly resigned over what is widely believed to be a disagreement with the RPF on the term limit amendment. The incident speaks to the nature of political debate, as two of the former officials, Giovanni Bushishi and Celestin Kabahizi, are members of the Social Democratic Party, one of only two parties represented in Rwanda’s Chamber of Deputies that are not members of the RPF coalition. However, the resignations are far from the most extreme incidents of repression of opposition voices.

Dozens of opponents, including former army officials, ministers and members of the RPF have been targets of attempted or successful assassinations, even after fleeing the country. Many assassination targets were members of the Rwanda National Congress (RNC), an opposition group made up of former high-ranking officials in exile in South Africa. In one high-profile incident, the former head of Rwanda’s external intelligence services and RNC member, Patrick Karegeya, was found dead in a South African hotel room in 2014. Although they deny any role, RPF officials are certainly not very cryptic about their views on the assassinations, sometimes going so far as to express approval without taking credit. When asked about Karegeya’s death, for example, Kagame said that the government was not behind the killing, but went on to state, “I actually wish Rwanda did it. I really wish it.”

Members of the media have not fared much better. Also in 2014, the Kinyarwanda-language station BBC Great Lakes was forced to close after another BBC station aired a controversial documentary about the 1994 genocide. As a result, the head of the Rwanda Media Commission, Fred Muvunyi, fled the country after the Minister of Local Government accused him of “working for foreign forces.” Overall, Rwanda is ranked 161 out of 180 countries on Reporters Without Borders’ 2015 World Press Freedom Index—nine spots below Russia and sixteen spots below neighboring Burundi.

Institutions depend on Kagame’s leadership

The lack of public challenge to this questionable constitutional amendment suggests that Kagame—and by extension, the RPF—is above politics, above the opposition, and above the constitution. The enforcement of term limits cannot effect change in a system that is effectively a cult of personality, a system in which an individual’s grip on power extends far beyond his presidency. The uncomfortable fact is that, while small pockets of opposition exist, there is not widespread dissatisfaction with Kagame. The president is an overwhelmingly popular figure within the country, both as a result of his time in office and as a result of his role in ending the horrific Rwandan genocide in 1994. It is not only possible, but likely, that the constitutional amendment is supported by a vast majority of Rwandans. Not only does Kagame enjoy a popular mandate, he is also the pillar of a political system built around him, and whose alternative is unknown.

Because Rwanda’s political and economic institutions revolve around Kagame, they would need to be significantly restructured if there were to be a meaningful transition of power. The parliament, dominated by the RPF, is little more than a rubber stamp for the enactment and approval of Kagame’s policies. As demonstrated recently in the term limit amendment case, Rwanda’s Supreme Court justices, appointed by Kagame, provide no challenge to his authority or policies.

Likewise, the state-run media has been publishing one-sided narratives about Rwandan leadership and development under the RPF for years. Predictably, it has produced a consistent stream of articles defending the term limit amendment.

The largest investment company in the country, Crystal Ventures, is owned and operated by the RPF, with Kagame allegedly in control. The RPF-owned conglomerate is the second largest employer in the country after the government and believed by some to be larger than the entire formal private sector. Very little information about the company’s assets or performance is known outside of a presumably small circle of RPF elites. A meaningful change in leadership would require much more substantial changes to the political and economic system than the retention of current presidential term limits.

Term limits are not a silver bullet

Since the adoption of the new constitution in 2003, elections in Rwanda have not come close to meeting internationally-recognized standards of “free and fair” contests, and there’s no reason to believe that trend would change in 2017, even if the term limit stayed in place. Under the rampant suppression of free speech, the absence of democratic elections, and the clampdown on political opposition taking place within the country, it is unrealistic to assume that anyone other than an RPF figurehead would be able to prevail in the polls. The fact that the third term amendment has moved forward even without the need for Kagame to express explicit support for it is telling of the level of political control the RPF holds over Rwanda. Term limits would not make the election process inclusive or end electoral fraud. And, even if term limits were upheld and a transition of power were to occur, it begs the question of who would take Kagame’s place and who would be better off as a result.

Kagame could easily step down and “lead from behind,” but there’s little reason to believe that such a maneuver would lead to a more inclusive government simply by switching out Kagame for another party figure.

Creating more inclusive and pluralistic government in Rwanda will certainly require a change in leadership, but term limits will only accomplish this at the most superficial level. Blocking the amendment of an already toothless constitution will not reshape Rwanda’s society or government institutions. The international community continues to mistakenly focus on elections and term limits as catalysts for change in governance rather than as mere barometers of that change. With Rwanda’s opposition still concentrated among a few small groups and its institutions still reliant on Kagame’s presence, his extended presidency is merely a symptom of the dysfunctional political environment, not the cause of it.