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When should Kagame retire?

By Andrew M. Mwenda

The benchmarks that Rwandans should discuss as forming the basis for sustainable peaceful transfer of power

President Paul Kagame believes in presidential term limits and desires to retire in 2017. I say this with a lot of confidence because I have had many discussions with him on this matter and his views have been consistent. He is also an admirer of former Tanzanian president, Julius Nyerere, whose example of voluntary retirement inspired(s) him. Fortunately for Kagame, he can still retire. The question is: When? Unfortunately for him, 2017 is not an appropriate year. Tanzania in 1985 was very different from Rwanda today.

Tanzania has always enjoyed an unusually high degree of national unity since before independence. Many scholars wrongly attribute this to Nyerere. This is only partly true – and only in the sense that Nyerere helped consolidate that unity. Yet even during colonialism Tanganyika was not characterised by the ethnic/religious divisions prevalent elsewhere in most of Africa. In the 1960 elections, for example, TANU won 70 out of 71 seats in parliament – the other one seat going to an independent candidate. The opposition Africa National Congress won only 0.3% of the vote.

This was different from most of colonial Africa where elections did not produce political parties with such overwhelming national support. Colonialism (depending on the pre-colonial social formations) had fostered strong ethnic or religious identities. Emergent political parties were therefore based on identity, a factor that made it difficult to craft unity.

Thus, in 1985 Tanzania did not have the kind of ethnic schisms that exploded into genocide in Rwanda. The nation had not suffered military coups and civil war. It was not in a dangerous neighborhood with armed gangs training in neighboring countries and supported by some powers, ready to strike. And although Nyerere had built a nation, he had destroyed its economy, GDP having shrunk by 40% during his tenure. Since he had secured the nation, he needed to retire so that someone can rebuild the economy.

Rwanda’s ethnic schisms have been explosive. Every political transition has stimulated genocide – 1959-62, 1972-73 and 1990-94. If Rwandans worry about a transition in 2017, their fears may not be rooted in current realities but are understandable given their history. This is especially so because nearly its entire mature population lived through the 1994 genocide and it’s emotional scars still torment their conscience – regardless of which side in the conflict they were. This is the demography that suffers extreme anxiety about any transition and is now calling on Kagame to stay.

Therefore in addressing the issue of a political transition in Rwanda, we are not dealing with an ordinary situation. I have visited many parts of the country and been struck by the anxiety ordinary citizens express when they hear about a possible transition in 2017. In pondering his desired (and deserved) retirement, it is absolutely necessary Kagame appreciates the fears his citizens are expressing. Theoretically, term limits are good, but not in every situation and certainly not at this particular moment in Rwanda.

Of course Kagame’s critics are already saying that they always knew he is power hungry. Yet these critics are ignorant of the man’s character. The demands on him to stay are imposing a heavy burden on Kagame’s conscience.  He has told me severally of his own desire to retire, to be able to rest and enjoy the pleasures of ordinary life. And quite significant, his family (wife and children) has also been insistent on him to retire even before 2017. Kagame is torn between honouring his word (thereby disregarding his citizens) and accepting the demands of the situation to run in 2017.

If Kagame’s retirement is enough to consolidate a culture of peaceful transfers of power, when should it happen? The year 2017 may possess symbolic importance because it is prescribed by the constitution. But does it address the fundamentals of a successful transition? Respect for the current term limits in the constitution just for the sake of it would be an uncritical embrace of the rituals of constitutionalism without thinking about their functional efficacy. The fundamental issue for Rwanda should be: What are the conditions necessary for the country to organise a political transition without causing unnecessary anxiety among its people? I want to suggest four benchmarks in demography, per capita income, education and urbanisation.

On Demography, Rwanda will be securely stable if the majority of its adult voting population will be composed of people either unborn or too young to have been psychologically affected by the 1994 genocide. The critical year is 2034 when those born after the genocide will be 40 years and will have taken over most of the leadership of the country. Secondly, studies show that democracy tends to stimulate instability in poor countries. It is when a country reaches a per capita income of US$2,700 that democracy begins to promote stability while autocracy begins to create instability. This statistic is extremely important for Rwanda because it has had the worst record of transitions of power in contemporary history. Using this yardstick and given Rwanda’s current rate of growth and per capita income at $750, the country will cross this milestone in 2031.

The third stabilizing factor is education attainment. Most research shows that when more than 60% of the adult population of a country has attained a minimum of 13 years of schooling, a nation’s potential for stability and democracy increases. This Rwanda will achieve by 2033. Finally is urbanisation. The more rural a society is, the more it tends to retain attachment to ethnic and other vertical identities. More urbanised societies tend to acquire more horizontal identities. At the current rate of urbanisation, Rwanda will have more than 50% of its population living in urban areas by 2035.

Kagame enjoys overwhelming support and legitimacy. These are political resources from which Rwanda can draw to sustain its momentum towards achieving the aforementioned benchmarks that will facilitate successful and reliable transition. Calls for Kagame to retire in the arbitrary year of 2017 may help the president’s personal prestige but do not address the fundamentals necessary for a mature transition. This is not to disregard the concerns of those who care about the president’s image. I am an advisor to Kagame and I care about his image deeply. So this subject has troubled me as well. However, I also do not think that the desire to keep Kagame’s personal prestige (assuming this assertion is valid) should supersede the necessity of organising a transition based on structural fundamentals in Rwanda.

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