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Vol 56 No 6

Published 20th March 2015


No room at the top

The ruling party is priming the public for a change in the law to allow President Paul Kagame a third term

The campaign is now in full swing to amend the constitution to allow President Paul Kagame to stand for a third term. Pro-government media are running opinion pieces almost daily praising his achievements and questioning the merits of limits on the term of office. With no real political opposition, little seems to stand in his way. Yet rumblings among the ruling elite suggest that all is not well in the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF).

Momentum has been building in the campaign for a third term for Kagame since just after the last presidential election in 2010, when the Minister of Internal Security, Sheikh Musa Fazil Harerimana, made the first public call to remove term limits. Harerimana belongs to the Parti démocrate idéal (PDI/Ishyaka Ntangarugero Muri Demokarasi), an Islamist party with a junior role in the ruling coalition. Many suspect that the promotion of the reform agenda by other political parties was intended to deflect criticism that the President was meddling with the constitution.

Of the ten registered parties, only the Parti vert démocratique/Democratic Green Party has publicly opposed removing term limits. The Greens have accused the PDI of conspiring with the Parti Social-Imberakuri and the Parti de la solidarité et du progrès to amend the constitution in the RPF's favour (AC Vol 55 No 14, Puzzle of FDLR intentions). They are too marginal to present much of a challenge to Kagame's plans.

Many see the slow debate around term limits as part of a strategy to accustom Rwanda and its aid partners to the prospect of Kagame's staying on. He initially rejected any notion of standing for re-election but his position became less clear in 2013. Rather than denying the possibility outright, he now dismisses questions on the issue as a distraction from core policy issues.

In December, the RPF's powerful Political Bureau told local media that they could begin to debate the issue of term limits. Since then, calls for Kagame's re-election have grown ever louder, as a rising number of military figures, former ministers and junior politicians debate constitutional reform in the press. A former Minister of Finance and Economic Planning, Professor Manasseh Nshuti, summed up the mood perfectly last month with an article in The New Times entitled, 'The ideal change is no change at all'.

the Putin option
No real attempt has been made to plan a succession. In February 2013, the Political Bureau chose a team of technocrats to consider proposals for the transition, in what was widely taken as code for prolonging the President's leadership. All of those appointed to lead the deliberations were from the dominant Tutsi minority and two years later, none of the team's recommendations have been made public. Until recently, regional media had speculated about alternative strategies that would allow Kagame to retain power but avoid the contentious process of changing the constitution. The most commonly cited was the 'Putin-Medvedev scenario', the Russian model whereby Kagame would take up the position of prime minister for a term before returning to the presidency. Yet Rwanda's 2003 constitution affords far less flexibility than Russia's and clearly states that a president may serve only two terms in his or her lifetime.

Others suggest Kagame could become party chairman, from where he could dictate policy behind the scenes. However, many wonder whether he would really accept a situation where the presidency would pass to a potential rival who could later challenge him. Both these scenarios now seem out of step with the growing calls in pro-government media for a constitutional referendum. Since Kagame won in 2010 with an astounding 93% of the vote, few doubt the RPF's ability to manage the election.

No room for dissent
As yet, opposition from within the RPF has been typically muted. A rare public sign of dissent came shortly after the Political Bureau meeting in February 2013, when the then Justice Minister, Tharcisse Karugarama, told Britain's Guardian newspaper that on no account should term limits be lifted. Kagame reacted with fury and within a week, Karugarama had lost his cabinet post.

Any further opposition to the succession plans has been kept far from the public eye but the arrests of several RPF and military figures in August for 'crimes against state security' could point towards growing dissent among Kagame's inner circle. They included prominent and long-standing members of the RPF power structure, such as the former head of the Republican Guard, Colonel Tom Byabagamba, Brigadier General (Retired) Frank Rusagara, previously a senior Defence Ministry official, and Captain (Rtd.) David Kabuye, a former head of the Rwandan Information Office (Orinfor) and of Rwandan Television (AC Vol 55 No 17, Kagame's purge). Although the opaque nature of the RPF's inner workings makes it difficult to tell what provoked the arrests, they do suggest a change in the regime's threat perception. This no longer appears to focus on exiled dissidents in South Africa and elsewhere but increasingly on discord in the presidential circle.

Reports of dissent in the Rwanda Defence Force (RDF) and among the Tutsi elite have grown in recent years, amid frustration with Kagame's authoritarian style of leadership. Some in the RPF were shaken by the defections of a former army chief, Lieutenant Gen. Faustin Kayumba Nyamwasa, in 2010 and a former External Intelligence chief, Col. Patrick Karegeya, in 2007 (AC Vol 51 No 6, The President's would-be rivals). Karegeya was found strangled in a Johannesburg hotel room last year (AC Vol 55 No 2, Murder in the Michelangelo). The sense of mistrust and foreboding is particularly acute between the military and political arms of the leadership, creating a potentially inflammable situation as the third term debate goes on. That could lead to a further purging of sources of dissent in both military and civilian formations.

The culture of fear that pervades the RDF and RPF has made it very difficult for any candidate to emerge in public as a challenger. Candidates frequently cited as possible contenders include the Secretary General of the East African Community, Richard Sezibera; Donald Kaberuka, whose second and final term as President of the African Development Bank ends this year; and the shrewd Foreign Minister, Louise Mushikiwabo.  Yet none of them have ever expressed interest in the job –  quite the contrary. Clearly the position isn't vacant.

Kagame may calculate that international opposition to any constitutional changes will be temporary. Although the African Union and donors would probably challenge them, Rwanda is unlikely to face the same level of international opposition as leaders in Burundi, Burkina Faso, Congo-Brazzaville and Congo-Kinshasa who have intimated they want to stay on beyond their constitutional terms. Kagame's international reputation as an effective leader and an efficient recipient of aid was underscored by the limited action taken in 2013 in response to Kigali's involvement in Congo-K's Mouvement du 23 mars rebellion. Although some suspension of aid is possible, Kagame probably feels confident that his champions abroad will ensure this is only temporary.

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