Popular will or Constitutionalism: The dilemma of Presidential Term Limit in Rwanda

President Paul Kagame waves to a crowd in Gatsibo District, Rwanda in 2012. Source: Flickr, by: Paul Kagame.

By Anisha Hira

The debate over extending the executive term limit to allow President Paul Kagame to run for a third term in the Republic of Rwanda has been framed as a clash between “exemplary leadership” on the one hand and “constitutionalism” on the other hand. Leadership under President Kagame can be reconciled with those constitutional values that encourage stability and security within the country. Presidential term limits do not necessarily guarantee democracy and good governance as proponents of amending the constitution claim. Indeed, as President Kagame himself points out, models of modern day liberal democracies, such as the UK and Germany, do not have any such provisions on term limits. In fact, leaders in both these nations have embarked upon three terms while maintaining a democratic state. Reformation of the constitution to allow for a further Presidential term would demonstrate strong leadership, and encourage stability, consistency and unity in Rwanda, it is argued.

In a 2003 referendum approximately 3.35 million Rwandans voted in favour of implementing a new constitution, which aimed to rebuild the country after the genocide. The 2003 constitutional reforms were instrumental in re-establishing institutions and addressing issues of identity and ethnicity in Rwanda. Like many other African countries, including neighbouring Burundi, Rwandans might be facing yet another referendum of constitutional and national significance. A petition, led by pro-government media outlets, and in favour of amending Article 101 of the constitution concerning Presidential term limits was signed by approximately 3.7 million citizens and presented to Parliament on May 27th 2015.

In July 2015, the Rwandan Parliament, by a landslide, supported a change to the constitution and launched public consultations with citizens across the country. The purpose of the consultations was to determine whether there is enough support in favour of a third term to carry out a national referendum regarding the constitutional amendment. Like many other African countries, including neighbouring Burundi, Rwandans are facing a referendum of constitutional and national significance that has major political implications.

Conversely, unlike these countries, Rwanda is a unique example of a nation that has had to re-establish its social, political and economic institutions in the wake of the genocide. As such, those in favour of allowing President Kagame to serve a third term have argued that the amendment would only apply in this situation to maintain Rwanda’s ‘stability’. Although there is adverse precedent for constitutional amendments and third, or more, terms across Africa, President Kagame would be setting a distinctive and possibly isolated precedent in Rwanda itself. It is not clear as yet how the constitution will reflect this exception and withstand political manipulation by leaders in the future.

Article 101 of the constitution explicitly states that the President of the Republic can hold a maximum of 2 terms of 7 years each. However, Article 193 states:
“…if the constitutional amendment concerns the term of the President of the Republic or the system of democratic government based on political pluralism, or the constitutional regime established by this Constitution especially the republican form of the government or national sovereignty, the amendment must be passed by referendum, after adoption by each Chamber of Parliament.”

The petition has sparked speculation as to how the constitution should be interpreted. Some claim that the provisions in Article 193 include increasing the number of Executive terms as well as the number of years in one particular term. Others strongly disagree and oppose any changes to the constitution as undemocratic and possibly catastrophic for the stability of Rwanda. In response to the petition, the opposition party, the Democratic Green Party (DGP) of Rwanda, recently challenged any such amendments before the Supreme Court.

The petition has been portrayed as a manifestation of popular will and has since been approved by the appropriate institutional channels. President Kagame himself has endorsed the debate around the petition and referendum for the sake of democratic discussion and has been outwardly ambivalent about seeking a third term. As the former Finance Minister, Manasseh Nshuti claimed, "It is irrational to change exemplary leadership and more so in [this] context even in the name of constitutionalism". Although the petition demonstrates how citizens associate President Kagame with stability in post-genocide Rwanda and are in favour of consistent leadership, critics of Kagame question the validity of the signatures. Firstly, there have been claims that the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) had forced or pressured people into signing the petition. Secondly, a large number of petitioners are apparently prisoners, who were convicted for acts of genocide, and no longer possess the right to vote. Nonetheless, the will of prisoners should not be discounted as separate from popular will merely because they cannot form a part of the electorate.

Yet, there are other factors of constitutional significance that can be upheld by amending the constitution to allow President Kagame to serve a third term. Primarily, Article 98 of the 2003 constitution states that the President is the “guardian of the Constitution and guarantees national unity. He or she guarantees the continuity of the State, the independence and territorial integrity of the country and respect of international treaties and agreements”. Economist, Dambisa Moyo, proposes that in order to kick-start their economies, African countries require a decisive and authoritative leader. Once economic growth takes off, the state will transition into a multi-party democracy that is not dependent on external actors, such as foreign aid donors, which are encapsulated by Article 98. Of course, there are other positions that challenge Moyo’s argument especially some within the developmental state model who think that there is no necessary trade-off between democracy and development.
The RPF and many citizens of the country paint their President as a symbol of national unity. This stems from his role in bringing the genocide to an end and his efforts to rebuild the country since then. The new flag and national anthem, in addition to the constitution, were both instituted under Kagame to prevent the promotion of ‘genocide ideology’ and ‘eradicate’ ethnic divisions in the country. Moreover, the government has amended the Law on the crime of genocide ideology Law 84/ 2013 to make it more accessible and transparent, in accordance with recommendations made by the International Service for Human Rights. This image of President Kagame fits well with Article 98 of the constitution, where citizens can trace ideas of national unity and a respect for international organisations. As a leader, President Kagame embodies the idea of ‘Kwibuka’ so that Rwandans can remember the past, and build a better future that is free from ethnic tensions.

Under his Presidency Rwanda has evolved both socially and economically to maintain “continuity of the State”, “independence” and “integrity”. Rhetoric of good governance and development are often cited in conjunction with Rwanda. In 2014, Rwanda’s real GDP growth rose to 7.0 per cent from 4.7 per cent in 2013. Rwanda has demonstrated rapid technological and infrastructural advancement in the region. For example, the Rwandan Development Board benefitted 1500 people through buses that were equipped with computers and the Internet that transported digital services, including E-governance, and imparted ICT skills to rural communities. The level of economic growth and development remains indicative of decisive management and institutional recovery that will further propel Rwanda in the global market.

The international community has lauded President Kagame’s regime for Vision 2020, a greater number of female than male MPs and an exponential economic recovery. In 2013, the World Bank named Rwanda as the easiest and most cost efficient African country in which to invest and carry out business. In 2014, the World Economic Forum rated Rwanda the 7th most efficient government in the world due to a ‘low level of waste in government spending’. Kagame’s links with leaders and country’s across the world have placed Rwanda firmly on the international stage. Aside from being a model for efficient and effective use of donor aid, Rwanda has become a model for strong and less-corrupt institutions.

In the past, President Kagame has been criticised over human rights abuses and his role in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). However, the Westminster Magistrate Courts recently dropped an extradition case against General Karenzi Karake on the grounds that he is not indictable under British Law. The arrest and verdict have proven to be contentious. In the eyes of critics of President Kagame the decision represents tacit support for the regime and the actions carried out by officials now and in the past. Nonetheless, it is undeniable that President Kagame has been able to form the requisite relationships and allies that will benefit Rwanda in the long-term. Despite the size of the country and its economy in the Great Lakes Region, President Kagame appears to be in a position of influence as an African leader who is both lauded and challenged by the West.   

These factors ring in stark contrast to Rwanda’s past, and to the rest of the continent. For many post conflict zones, particularly in Africa, the State has seldom been able to generate substantial economic and political reform, as well as enjoy regional influence and international attention. Yet, there is still much to be done in terms of post-conflict reconstruction. The World Bank classified Rwanda as a low-income country because 44.9 per cent of the population lives under the poverty line and the Gross National Income per capita remains well under the average taken across Sub-Saharan Africa.

Presently Rwanda does not have a strong opposition party or Presidential contender, something that explain both the nature of the leadership currently in the country but also why voices against the third term are not as loud. The DGP has been unsuccessful in blocking an amendment to the constitution in the Supreme Court because they were unable to find sufficient legal representation. Considering the relative size of the DGP and its ability to compete against the RPF in the political arena, Rwandans do not have many options to choose from. Furthermore, a change in leadership potentially risks de-stabilising or weakening the state and its progress in the last 20 years. Furthermore, the testimony of experience on the continent and elsewhere demonstrates that institutions, including the constitution, can easily be manipulated and distorted without stable and decisive leadership.

Over the past 21 years, President Kagame has proven to be a positive force in re-building and recovering the country. At such an early stage of its recovery, Rwanda needs to sustain this trajectory of growth and show of strong leadership. Despite the uncertainty about altering the constitution, the likelihood is that the result of the referendum will permit the constitutional amendment and President Kagame will continue to lead Rwanda. How that will unfold and if it will indeed push Rwanda away from the scars of its past remains to be seen.

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