3 February 2013

Rwanda: No Need to Speculate - Kagame Will Exit When Time Is Up


Once again, speculation is rife whether or not President Kagame will step down when his second term is up.

The perennial talking point among the doubters is that Kagame will change the constitution - like so many other African heads of state seem to do - to pave way for another term for himself, and thereafter we will be on the slippery slope to a life presidency!

What has fanned resurgence of the question apparently is that on a tour the President took upcountry last month, some people got up to praise Kagame, saying he is the best leader they ever had and fervently requesting him to stay on beyond 2017. When a journalist asked him about it at a press conference last month, Kagame only said he preferred to cross a bridge when he got to it, and that such questions only divert us from the crucial work of re-building the nation. Well, the juxtaposition of the upcountry third-term proponents and Kagame's seemingly non-committal response to the journalist only fuelled more speculation he indeed will do what others, like Yoweri Museveni, have done before him to extend their stay in power.

But to interpret things this way is essentially to misread Kagame. I think the President is being sincere when he says talk of a third term diverts people from more important work. The thing is, he has addressed the tricky question of a term extension so many times before that he has realized no matter what he says, the doubters will still doubt.

But before proceeding let me make this observation: the skeptics have their logic, and it is sound logic. The fact remains that Rwanda, like so many other African countries, is one whose institutions are plagued by all sorts of weaknesses and so do not fulfill their duties even half well. The reasons vary from country to country.

In Rwanda's case, we all know the whys. First, very bad post-independence governments led by individuals who never attempted to leave a decent, functional state for all Rwandans but only were interested in perpetual rule and naturally widened ethnic differences as a means to their ends. Second, the Genocide - that was a result of all the ethnic resentments they dredged - only devastated whatever wretched mechanisms of governance were in place, so that Kagame and the RPF inherited the most appalling situation imaginable in which to run a country.

Therefore when in the context of this history one questions Kagame on whether he will step down, one puts him in an impossible situation. We know very well he is a very strong President who indeed would manipulate parliament to do his bidding, including changing the constitution, if he chose to. Which I very much doubt he will.

But we also know that in order for him and the RPF to build strong, long-lasting institutions, Kagame first had to assume a lot of powers. Because not doing so would only have impeded Rwanda's ability to recover from the disaster of the Genocide. Faustin Twagiramungus and other so-called leaders of the opposition were already positioning themselves to make governing impossible.

Kagame also is keenly aware that to begin talk of succession in the still weak position the country is, i.e. a fragile economy and institutions still susceptible to the manipulation of powerbrokers within the RPF system itself, would be quite counterproductive. Better to keep everyone guessing as the work of building the nation proceeds. And as the RPF buys time to correct, at least, most of the deficiencies in it.

A few diplomats from embassies of Western countries in Kigali have been picking my brains on the political setup in Kigali, and of course their talk is always the talk of people who want us to adopt values to reflect their own, and the question of whether the President will leave inevitably crops up. Because, the way they look at it, if Rwanda is not governed according to the jostling, pluralist model of most Western democracies, then Kagame cannot step down.

I tell them this: "Actually you don't know Kagame; he would step down just to prove you wrong!" And I do not mean it as a joke.

There are however a number of other signs to indicate Kagame will exit the stage when his second term is up, if one cares to look closely. First off, he has a very strong sense of personal honor and integrity, and he likes to lead by example. So many who were very strong members of the ruling party and decided to abuse power or engage in corruption have been shown the exit. No matter who you are, Kagame will not tolerate you if you deviate from the mission of building a better Rwanda and bequeathing it the next generation.

With the exit of so many powerful "historical" RPF, a vital ingredient in the recipe of what pushes more than a few African heads of state to outstay their welcome is missing. There are no powerful individuals to compel Kagame to stay on. Individuals that normally form the inner circle of a Sub-Saharan African regime; members of a so-called kitchen cabinet are largely absent in this administration.

In other countries, strong "historicals" may hold a president hostage and tell him he is going nowhere! Because such powerful individuals see themselves threatened, or reduced to irrelevance once "their man" has left. Such "historicals" may even be joined by the first spouse to form an invincible cabal around the head of state that ends up actually calling the shots in a country. These cabals may also be called a mafia in other countries, such as the alleged "Mt. Kenya Mafia" around Kenyan president Mwai Kibaki. Cabals are powerful and active in so many African states. But they are not there in Rwanda, and so Kagame does not have that problem to deal with.

He will be guided by his strong sense of personal honor, he will be impeded by no one, and he will be making it a point to prove the doubters wrong when he steps down four years from now.

Take that to the bank.

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