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When Kagame disproves critics

By Andrew M. Mwenda

Because he has little pecuniary interest in power and no messianic image of himself, Kagame will easily retire in 2017

Since his press engagement in Kampala, President Paul Kagame has come under increasing attack from some people accusing him of being unclear about his intention to retire in 2017. Kagame has previously said people should be free to debate term limits. However, he has said repeatedly he will not accept to be a beneficiary of such a constitutional amendment. In spite of this, critics remain unconvinced.

Kagame has positioned his presidency as different from what has happened in most of Africa. Many of the actions he has taken set him apart from most of his contemporaries – thus disproving the prejudices of his critics. Therefore, nothing will validate his critics’ argument against him – that he is another power hungry African despot – than if he were to renege on the issue of term limits.


Will Kagame remove term limits and remain president after 2017? If we follow precedent across Africa and all other countries where presidents have come to power through guerrilla movements – from Angola, Mozambique, North Korea and China to Vietnam, such leaders die in office. Uganda, Eritrea and Ethiopia seem on course to prove this. For most reasonable people therefore, it is only natural to suspect that Kagame will follow suit.

Second, if one looks at the structural conditions in Rwanda – a dominant ruling party, a very large poor and semi-literate rural population; a small educated urban middle class; a weak and poorly developed civil society and the absence of a strong opposition make removing term limits a walk in the park. In such circumstances, most reasonable people would again be forgiven to suspect that Kagame will not leave in 2017. Therefore, if Kagame is going to leave power, the explanation has to come from his character. I am willing to bet that come 2017, he will not run for president.

Kagame has not exhibited a high thirst for the presidency like most people in his position would have. For example, when the RPF captured power in 1994, everyone would have expected Kagame to take over as president. He was the general who had commanded the armies that had captured power. The RPF mounted pressure on him to become president. He refused. Prime Minister designate at the time, Faustine Twagiramungu, led a delegation of all the other political parties to the Arusha Accords to petition Kagame to be president. He still refused.

I do not know of a successful general who wrestled power into his hands and everyone in the country wanted him to take it and he refused – not Napoleon Bonaparte, Fidel Castro, Samora Machel, George Washington, Hoh Chi Minh, Yoweri Museveni or Mao Tse Tung. In fact Kagame was not even interested in becoming the vice president, a position hastily created and which he accepted as a compromise to put in place a government. Rwanda had spent almost two weeks without a government because Kagame was refusing to be president. If he could afford to play second fiddle for six years, he can afford to leave power in 2017.

Therefore, for many Rwandans and people who know Rwanda, the biggest risk is not that Kagame will stay. The risk is that when he leaves, how much of what he has put in place will survive. Kagame – notwithstanding his one million and one imperfections as a human being and as a leader – towers above Rwanda as a moral colossus. His determination to insist that government should not only serve the privileges of the powerful but should also (and in equal measure) serve the interests of the ordinary person is something that will be difficult to sustain without him. His determined and relentless fight against corruption is another.

Without Kagame’s personal character and leadership ability and focus, it is not clear that a lot of what has happened in Rwanda under him can be sustained. This is largely because while individual leaders can make things happen, it is institutions that make things last. Yet institutions – their capabilities, traditions and norms – take generations to build. And once built, they are susceptible to reversal.

Kagame has helped put in place public and private institutions in Rwanda. He has helped endow them with particular capabilities which have allowed that country to punch above its weight. Yet as he plans to retire in 2017, there is not much evidence inside RPF, other political parties, or Rwanda’s bureaucracy that all these capacities will automatically survive and continue to thrive. As someone knowledgeable about Rwanda, I am always shocked (not surprised) at how many wrong things private and public officials in Rwanda are willing to do but for fear of Kagame.

Let me not be misunderstood to be saying that it is only Kagame who does the right thing in Rwanda. Indeed, he would have achieved very little if he had not built a strong team and instilled in it a sense of discipline, determination, focus and purpose that one finds in Rwanda’s public life. But it is not obvious that without him these qualities can be easily sustained. This is because there are many forces in Rwanda who would prefer a more relaxed moral code in the public sector – some genuinely as a way to promote elite co-optation, others for self aggrandisement.

If Kagame were the mainstream power hungry ruler, there are many choices he would already have made to protect his power. For example, he would have promoted patronage, allowed corruption, bought and sold favours to groups and individuals whose support he desires, made unprincipled compromises and given dubious concessions. Yet in most of his decisions and actions, he has demonstrated a consistent pattern of always placing his country’s national interest above his personal aggrandisement.

Across most contemporary Africa and the world, leaders base their legitimacy on trading favours among elites hence corruption. But Kagame has sought to base his legitimacy almost entirely on the performance of his government in improving the social-economic condition of his people and delivering public goods and services to them. Those are not traits of a leader desirous to stay in power for its own sake. Because he has little pecuniary interest in power, and because he does not possess a messianic image of himself, Kagame easily relinquish the presidency.

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