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To stay or not to stay

By Andrew M. Mwenda

How the debate on amending the Constitution to remove term limits is evolving in Rwanda and the issues to consider

President Paul Kagame recently said he does not want Rwanda to amend the constitution to remove term limits. But I do not think this will stop calls by ordinary citizens who want him to stay. If I were not conversant with Rwanda, I would have thought this is an argument by the president’s courtiers telling lies to retain power. Whoever underestimates the amount of pressure on Kagame to stay should try a referendum. Indeed Kagame has rigged the debate by taking a position. This places senior politicians and military and security chiefs in a difficult position of having to openly disagree with their boss. But even this may not stop the momentum that has begun at the grassroots.

It is possible the removal of term limits will stimulate secondary political contestations that will lead Rwanda back to instability. This is because the biggest challenge facing developing nations, is how to ensure peaceful transfer of power from one president to another and one ruling party or government to another. Kagame’s greatest contribution to Rwanda would, therefore, be his ability to midwife a peaceful transfer of power to another president as Julius Nyerere of Tanzania did. Then he could retire to mentor and nurture this new political culture behind the scenes.

The likelihood that Kagame’s stay will stimulate instability is premised on the fear that if people realise there is no way the president can be removed peacefully, they may resort to violent means. And if removal of term limits diminishes Kagame’s national prestige, he may retain power only by buying favours from elites; hence corruption and likely instability. Here we need examples of presidents in Africa who tried to cling to power by removing term limits and thereby stimulated instability. To my knowledge none of the countries that has removed term limits has collapsed.


The other scenario is that if term limits are removed and Kagame remains president, Rwanda will sustain the current momentum for reform and fast growth. Changing leaders in 2017 will slow down Rwanda’s pace as the new president, seeking to consolidate his position will try to win over powerful elites. The most cost effective way to do this is to trade favours, hence corruption and patronage. Kagame’s overwhelming legitimacy allows him to crack down on corruption. It also allows him to enforce technocratic management by minimising political deal-making that dilutes state independence and performance. In the context of Rwanda’s still young and fragile institutions, Kagame’s departure can stimulate elite contestations for power that will overwhelm the political system hence instability.

The first democratic transition of power in post-independence Africa happened in Somalia in 1967 when Abdirashid Ali Shermarke defeated President Aden Abdullah Osman Daar in a general election. Sharmarke was assassinated in October 1969, followed by a military coup. Today Somalia is a failed state. An even more organised peaceful transition happened in Sierra Leone in 1985. President Siaka Stevens retired voluntarily after 14 years and handed power to Joseph Saidu Momoh. A few years later, the country degenerated into civil war, a military coup, and state collapse. Most recently Mali was being hailed as a stable democracy because of two leadership transitions. Now it is being held together by French troops.

The point is that neither a democratic transition (Somalia and Mali), nor a peaceful retirement (Sierra Leone) is a guarantee that the country will be stable. The supporters of term limits as a guarantor for stability make this argument out of religious faith, not history. But missionary politics of this type will not be helpful. I used to be a fanatic of term limits exactly out of faith than history. The words of Lord Bolingbroke, that “philosophy is history teaching by example”, need to be taken seriously. I hope that Rwandan citizens will debate this matter more out of political pragmatism than religious faith. If Rwanda has to make an error, it must make it on the side of caution.

There is a lot that has happened in Rwanda to give hope that even if Kagame leaves, the country would not slide to instability. The RPF is a strong and more institutionalised political party than many of its contemporaries on our continent. The Rwandan military and security forces are more professional than in many African countries. And state institutions and the economy are on a sound trajectory for growth and consolidation. Kagame therefore can retire with his head high knowing he has done a great job. It is, therefore, imprudent for advocates of removing term limits to create doomsday scenarios that if the president retires Rwanda will fall apart.But since Kagame is performing well, why change him especially when the vast majority of citizens still want him to govern? Is leadership change a purposeless fashion? The constitution of Rwanda places all power in the hands of its citizens who can exercise it indirectly through their elected representatives or directly through a referendum.  The framers of the constitution had the wisdom to foresee the likelihood of circumstances calling for the amendment of the constitution to meet the aspirations of the people. They provided for a referendum to remove term limits if circumstances so necessitated.

Those opposed to removing term limits cannot eat their cake and have it. If they want democracy in Rwanda, let the people’s voice be heard. And for those who think Kagame is a dictator determined to retain power, there is nothing to argue with them. But there are many admirers of Kagame who would like to see him retire if only to retain his prestige as an enlightened leader. This is because those on our continent who have removed term limits have had unsavoury records. Kagame’s admirers do not want him to be misunderstood. This is the constituency those advocating for removing term limits should address themselves to. But this also means that Kagame’s retirement would most certainly enhance his personal prestige but not benefit Rwanda. I hope these admirers do not want him to be that selfish.

Ultimately the people most likely to be most affected by Kagame’s stay or retirement (the citizens) should make the choice through Rwanda’s democratic institutions. Any attempt to rely on a theory imported from abroad as “best practice”, instead of the objective conditions obtaining on the ground in Rwanda, is likely to be an exercise in unnecessary and unprofitable experimentation.

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