Carlo Allegri/Reuters
President Paul Kagame of Rwanda addresses attendees during the 70th session of the United Nations General Assembly at the U.N. Headquarters in New York, September 29, 2015.

Kagame wants third term in Rwanda. A test for democracy?

Mr. Kagame has ruled Rwanda since 2000 and is now legally able to serve as president until 2034. He plans to run for a seven-year term in 2017. 

When President Paul Kagame announced he would run for a third term, few were surprised. 

Mr. Kagame's declaration last week came after a year of political maneuvering that enables him to run again in 2017. His decision adds Rwanda to a list of African democracies where leaders are sidestepping term limits and staying in power. He has been president of Rwanda since 2000. 

In October, Rwanda’s high court ruled that the parliament can amend the constitution to remove the two-term presidential limit. And last month, 98 percent of Rwandans voted to approve a revised constitution that would extend Mr. Kagame's tenure in office until 2034. Those changes allow Kagame to run for another seven-year term, as well as two more five-year terms after that. 

You requested me to lead the country again after 2017,” he said during an annual year-end on Dec. 31. “Given the importance and consideration you attach to this, I can only accept.” 

Kagame is credited with stabilizing the central African country after its 1994 genocide, in which an estimated 800,000 ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed.

But that praise is often joined to criticism of increasing authoritarian rule since he became president, and growing human rights abuses in Rwanda and in neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Indeed, while he remains a darling of many in the West, years of repression have eradicated a political opposition and elements of civil society that would normally act as checks and balances. 

But what is clear is that Kagame’s announcement puts him in opposition with many who have praised his work in bringing peace and stability to Rwanda. The US State Department, for example, came out strongly against an added term. 

"The United States is deeply disappointed that President Paul Kagame has announced his intention to run for a third term in office," said spokesman John Kirby. The United States is a major donor and provides military aid to Rwanda. The US has also declared its concern over African leaders attempting to stay in power, a fact President Barack Obama reiterated during his visit to Africa last summer by saying that term-limit challenges are “often just a first step down a perilous path.”

These term limit challenges are becoming especially popular in Africa's Great Lakes region where Rwanda lies: In Burundi, President Pierre Nkurunziza’s third-term bid and re-election triggered a political crisis that the international community fears will devolve into genocide.

Kagame's decision comes as Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni, and DRC's Joseph Kabila, are also gearing up to stand again for office after being in power 29 and 14 years, respectively.

Ugandan lawmakers changed their Constitution in 2006, allowing Mr. Museveni to be re-elected in 2006 and 2011. Mr. Kabila's re-election aspirations are being met by protests and violent clashes between youths and the police. 

Though it is unlikely that Rwanda can expect the kind of violence seen in Burundi and Congo, many wonder if more time in office for Kagame will solidify the atmosphere of repression that has grown since he took office in 2000. 

“With this decision, President Kagame ignores a historic opportunity to reinforce and solidify the democratic institutions the Rwandan people have for more than 20 years laboured so hard to establish,” the State Department said in its statement.

 “The US believes constitutional transitions of power are essential for strong democracies and that efforts by incumbents to change rules to stay in power weaken democratic institutions. We are particularly concerned by changes that favor one individual over the principle of democratic transitions.”

How far the US will go to prevent Kagame's bid, outside of verbal objections, is unclear. This reluctance, experts say, comes from the guilt surrounding the genocide two decades ago. The US has built a strong relationship with the strongman in the past 20 years, Politico reported in a 2014 article:  

The United States, without doubt, is Kagame’s staunchest ally and oldest supporter, eager to maintain Rwanda as a strategic partner with a powerful army in mineral-rich eastern Africa. In the 1990s, Kagame studied at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College in Fort Leavenworth, Kans., before he returned to Rwanda and seized power in 1994. (More recently, his son Ivan trained at West Point.) Although the United States typically provides only about half a million dollars in bilateral military aid to Rwanda, high-ranking current and former U.S. officials—including not only Bill Clinton but also national security adviser Susan Rice and Jendayi Frazer, a former top Africa diplomat—have a history of backing Kagame, despite evidence of abuses by his forces.

Within Rwanda, protests by the main opposition Democratic Green Party has been loud but ineffectual.  "He has violated democratic principles," the party spokesman Jean Deogratias Tuyishime told Reuters.  "This is a failure for Rwanda as a nation."

In Rwanda, opposition to Kagame can be dangerous, observers say. Writing about the genocide's 20th anniversary, the Monitor's Mike Pflanz noted that:

“Those who question, criticize, disagree, or diverge are accused of 'forgetting' the genocide. People who oppose Kagame, or who fail to pay their taxes, or who shirk the monthly national community service, are forgetters of the national story that brings unity.

Such behavior is classed alongside denying that the genocide took place. Expressing such sentiments is deeply taboo.

"The government watches hawkishly for anyone saying anything that could be construed as diverting from the official line," one Western diplomat in Kigali says. "There's a good reason for it: No one wants what happened to happen again. But there is an argument that 'genocide ideology' has no firm legal definition, and it's becoming a kind of catchall term with which to accuse people who are not playing ball."

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