20 February 2013

Rwanda: Politics of Transition - Are We At Crossroads?

Photo: Paulo Filgueiras /UN
Rwanda President Paul Kagame (file photo).


At the latest meeting of the ruling RPF, the issue of political transition and change took centre stage. According to media reports, many issues were discussed, with the political party leader encouraging the party faithful to go out there and do research on how to best manage change and also ensure continuity and stability.

As expected, political commentators have easily zeroed in on the issue of whether President Kagame, will, come 2017, step aside. Many think that regardless of what is written down in the constitution, the President retains enormous influence to determine whether he stays or leaves.

But as we have come to learn, the whole thing is after all, not about the so called third term for the sitting President.

Without realising it, many people who are infatuated with the current top leadership of the country, seem to ignore the fact that Rwanda has, over the last decade, undergone a fundamental shift/transition in the way state affairs are managed, and more so, there has been an infusion of young blood in the leadership of the country, that is uncommon elsewhere in the region.

Therefore, it would be uncharacteristic of the current generation of leaders to seek to entrench themselves in power for as long as they wish, by manipulating the constitution and without a clear and true mandate of the people.

The fact that many elites, at home and abroad, believe that Rwanda has weak institutional capacities to withstand any attempts to alter the constitution to benefit a single individual, should be the very reason that justifies the current raging debate. How do we work to strengthen some of the institutions that may not be as good as we wish them to be?

As it has been explained on several platforms and, especially in the media, apparently, the assignment given to the RPF faithful is broad. And it centres on the politics of transition and change from a transformative leader of great historical significance. We ought to realise that we are probably nearing a crossroads, where, once again, courageous and innovative decisions have to be taken and implemented for the good of the country.

It is important that wide-ranging constitutional reforms are carried out in order to have a constitution that truly reflects the wishes, hopes, aspirations and customs of the Rwandan people. Therefore, people who are trying to centre the whole debate around the so-called "third term" should pause and reflect on the realities of our unique situation.

For example, the seven-year presidential term, to some people, is way too long and unnecessary. All these have to be looked into.

Importantly, whereas it is key that for a country that aspires to be a democracy, where change of government through constitutional means becomes the norm, it is important that we take into account what is realistic and not necessarily the ideal.

In all nations, at a specific point in time, there emerges a leader who is a transformative figure of great historical importance. The historic significance of President Kagame cannot be ignored by even his most ardent critics. Therefore, transition from such a leader will not be business as usual.

Debate even on the issue of whether term limits should be expunged from the constitution is a healthy one. Term limits are not the beginning and end of democracy. It is possible to have democracy without term limits. Even change of leadership is possible without term limits.

In most of Europe's enduring democracies, term limits are not enshrined in the constitution. You can be in office as long as you have the mandate of the people. The debate should be allowed to play its course and we realistically assess whether the institutions of state are ready for political transition.

The fact that the ruling party has set in motion this debate as early as now, is yet again a manifestation of political realism and maturity. Take it or leave it, because of the historical role of the current leadership in shaping Rwanda's destiny and history, change and transition has to be managed carefully.

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