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Why Kagame’s third term makes sense for Rwanda

Incumbent Rwandan President Paul Kagame (L) greets a crowd of supporters as he arrives for a campaign rally on July 31, 2017 in Gakenke ahead of August 4 presidential election. MARCO LONGARI / AFP

Rwandan president Paul Kagame first confirmed that he will seek a third term after more than 98% of Rwandans voted in a referendum to lift the presidential term limit.

Kigali, Rwanda | THOMAS STUBBS | Kagame’s decision not to step down prompted a barrage of criticism. Western governments, media outlets and human rights groups painted him with the same brush as other central African “strongmen”.

Attempts to extend presidential terms by Blaise Compaore of Burkina Faso and Pierre Nkurunziza of Burundi had led to instability and violence in these nations.

Other leaders in the region — such as Denis Sassou Nguesso of Congo-Brassaville and Joseph Kabila of Congo-Kinshasa — were also considering changes to allow third-term extensions.

But Rwanda’s situation is unique. Unlike the third-term fever afflicting other countries in the region, Rwanda is not mired in corruption and economic stagnation.

During the past decade its economic growth has averaged around 7% per year, maternal and child mortality has fallen by more than 60% and near universal health insurance has been achieved. The country is also now considered one of the safest and least corrupt in sub-Saharan Africa. And in just the past three years, the percentage of people living in poverty has dropped from 44.9% in 2011 to 39.1% in 2014.

This remarkable list of achievements is attributed to the leadership of Kagame, who assumed the presidency in 2000.

Kagame’s agenda

Despite these accolades, Kagame is frequently criticised by human rights groups over Rwanda’s tightly controlled political space.

He has sought to place a strong emphasis on developing a new Rwandan national identity. He has done this in an attempt to sever connections to the primordial categories of ethnic identification that provoked the tragic events of 1994. Ethnic politics and discrimination have thus been outlawed in the country.

With the genocide against the Tutsi still in recent memory, Kagame has committed to power-sharing only among parties that are firmly aligned against a revival of ethnic sectarianism. Within this political settlement, it is the pursuit of development — not negotiation — that is seen as the principal path to national reconciliation.

A supporter of the governing Rwandan Patriotic Front party ride his motorbike during the last days of the presidential election campaigning in Kigali, on July 29, 2017. MARCO LONGARI / AFP

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