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The battle for Kagame’s soul

By Andrew M. Mwenda

Inside the struggle by Rwandans to get their president to run again in 2017

And so it was that on December 6, I was present at a Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) meeting to discuss the “third term”. Attended by over 3,000 party delegates, members wanted President Paul Kagame to pronounce himself – there and then – that he would be the presidential candidate of the RPF in the 2017 elections once the constitution is amended to remove term limits on the presidency. The meeting was charged. Delegate after delegate spoke with passion on why Kagame should be their presidential candidate.

From the way delegates spoke, it was clear that there was suspicion that Kagame would refuse their request. And the president was absent from the meeting attending to the visiting Ethiopian Prime Minister to listen to their pleas. So delegates directed their energy to the First Lady, Mrs. Jeannette Kagame, asking her to tell her husband not turndown the request to run. So intense were the demands on Jeannette that she declared she was attending the meeting as an ordinary party member, not as a First Lady.


Senior party leaders found themselves at pains to explain to the junior party members that the president will not turn down their request. “I have known this president for a long time,” an old man told the attentive delegates, “I can assure you he cannot ignore the pleas of Rwandans.” After explaining the personality of Kagame, he said: “So don’t be worried and agitated. He will say yes.” The highly respected Tito Rutaremera also joined those calling on delegates to be calm and be assured the president will accept their request to run as their presidential candidate in 2017. “He cannot ignore the cries of his people,” Rutaremera belabored.

For two years since the demands for amending the constitution to remove term limits began, the Rwandan president has not spoken clearly on the matter. The last time he spoke, he said he is not looking for a third term. What the president meant is that he has not asked anyone to canvas for a third term on his behalf. Therefore there was genuine reason for the delegates to suspect Kagame would refuse. Didn’t he do exactly that in 1994? After RPF took power in that year, everyone wanted Kagame to be president. And they took it for granted he would accept. He refused. For almost ten days neither side could budge: RPF wanted Kagame as president, Kagame insisted he did not want the job. Then Prime Minister designate, Faustin Twagiramungu, led a delegation of all the other political parties to plead with Kagame to accept to be president and he refused.

Finally a compromise was struck. Kagame would suggest someone he felt should become president and present him to the RPF for election. He proposed Pasteur Bizimungu. However, RPF and other political parties would accept this if Kagame agreed to become vice president and minister of defense. He agreed. It is rare in human history for a successful rebel leader of an armed struggle to insist on his political party crowning someone else as president. It is also a decision that caused a lot of friction in Rwanda and its consequences still hang heavily on Kagame’s conscience.

The Rwandan president is now acutely aware that the wisdom of multitudes of Rwandans is as important – or even more important – than his own. He can longer afford to disregard popular opinion as he did in 1994. So when he finally came to speak, he did not want to disappoint RPF delegates. But he also did not want to be stampeded into making a decision prematurely. In his speech, Kagame reminded the delegates that there is a constitutional amendment process that has been on going. The sticking issue is to remove term limits to allow him to contest again in 2017. But instead of asking him to make a decision now, he reasoned, they should wait until the process is concluded. And the crowning event of this process is a referendum on the issue. It is here that Kagame put his clincher.

“We need to ask ourselves, is our decision the right one?” he said as everyone listened attentively, “When Rwandans go to the referendum, they will be going to show their position, their worries and concerns about the country. Now they have not yet been given an opportunity to express themselves. What you expect from me, you thought you would get it today; no you cannot. We have to go through the process. If there is a referendum and only 55% say amend the constitution, I would not accept.”

Knowing Kagame, I do not think he will accept to run for president in 2017 if anything less than 90% favors him running again. The good news is that this is such as easy number for the pro third term advocates. Across that tiny country, a vast grassroots movement has been underway to petition the president to run again. It is a desire shared by the ruling party and other political parties alike – except for a small percentage of malcontents.

It is rare for any country to have such unanimity of opinion on what elsewhere would have been a contentious political issue. I therefore understand why many outsiders and skeptics think all this outpouring of support for Kagame to run for president in 2017 is a result of political manipulation by the president and his cohorts. If I had not been intimately involved in Rwandan politics, I would also have thought the same way. But any person with good knowledge of Rwanda will tell you the country is united behind its president.

Post genocide Rwanda is really unique among poor countries in almost every measure. With per capita income at Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) of $1,900, Rwanda is among the world’s ten most efficient governments, according to the respected World Economic Forum. And all the countries in the top ten have per capita incomes above $60,000 except Malaysia, which stands at $25,000. With per capita revenue of $107 per year, Rwanda is the only country in this revenue bracket where government legitimacy depends to a large degree on the ability of the state to deliver public goods and services to ordinary people.

Outsiders may not understand this but their attempts to give summons on how Rwandans should govern themselves are increasing the passions of those who want Kagame to stay. The vast majority of Rwandans don’t want their president to cave in to external pressure. If there is a last push on Kagame to stay, it is the hubris of certain powers in our world.

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