East Africa

Kagame’s headache: To bow out or to hang on?

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On February 8 this year, Rwanda’s ruling party, the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF), held a meeting attended by over 2,000 delegates in the capital Kigali.

At the conference, President Paul Kagame introduced two subjects: the challenges facing the country over the international community’s allegations that Kigali is fuelling regional conflict, and his own plans to respect term limits and retire from the presidency in 2017.

Naturally, the second subject set the conference — and, by extension, the country — afire, sending rivulets of excitement, anticipation and even confusion throughout the ‘land of a thousand hills’.

“I have been asked by many people, especially journalists, whether I will respect the term limits on the presidency,” Kagame began his speech on the issue, “but regardless of the answer I give, the question keeps coming back. Now even citizens are asking me the same question: Will I retire in 2017? Many of those asking this question are worried about the future of the country; whether, when I leave, there will be continuity and stability, especially given the increasing pressures on the country.”

Kagame went ahead to display letters from ‘ordinary Rwandans’ beseeching him to stay on, with many expressing fears that, should he leave, the gains of his presidency could soon be swept away by ineptitude and political indiscipline.

Those remarks, and the letters in Kagame’s hands, brought to national attention a trend that has troubled the presidency and its opposition over the past few months.

In the private missives, as well as in public functions, people say that, given the unique circumstances of Rwanda and recent pressures on its government to toe a certain line, they are worried that when Kagame leaves, many things could go wrong, and especially so if he leaves quickly and haphazardly.

“Irrespective of me saying; ‘Yes, I will go’, people keep saying they are not sure this is possible,” he said. “I don’t want this uncertainty to continue. Come 2017, we are going to have change. But there needs to be continuity and stability. Therefore the challenge is how to organise this change while at the same time ensuring continuity of what we have achieved and also retaining the stability of the country.”

To get the back story of Rwanda’s seeming aversion to a post-Kagame government, we talked to those in his administration and those outside it, to his loyalists and his biggest critics, to the man in high office and the woman in the streets. The results, needless to say, were baffling.

Except for a small fringe in Kigali, the vast majority of ordinary Rwandans want the Constitution amended to remove term limits so that Kagame can run again.

Even among the top leadership of the RPF and other political parties, this view has gained wide currency lately.

And the call to cling on to Kagame has become more entrenched after recent accusations that Kigali is sponsoring M23 rebels in eastern DRC. International aid cuts only made this newfound nationalism even stronger and more attractive.

As a result, the pressure on Rwanda, presumably aimed at promoting human rights and democracy, seems to be producing the opposite political response domestically.


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