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Rwanda's President Dangles The Possibility Of A Third Term

President Paul Kagame posted his ballot in Kigali on Friday as Rwandans voted in a referendum to decide whether he should be allowed to extend his time in power.
President Paul Kagame posted his ballot in Kigali on Friday as Rwandans voted in a referendum to decide whether he should be allowed to extend his time in power.

It's a recurring question throughout many parts of Africa: How long should a leader stay in power?

Rwanda's President Paul Kagame is the only president the country has had since 2000, and his tenure has been marked by stability and relative prosperity.

Now he's toying with the idea of running for a third term. Such moves by presidents in the neighboring states of Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo have led to unrest.

Last Friday, more than 90 percent of Rwandan voters said yes to modifying the constitution by removing a two-term limit and clearing the way for Kagame to run again — and again and again. In theory, he could remain in power for another 17 years.

The White House immediately criticized the referendum. President Obama has been consistent in his call for African leaders to adhere to term limits. But Rwanda's approach — using a referendum to give voters the power to support a constitutional amendment — may be one of the trickiest to counter.

In a speech to the nation on Monday, Kagame didn't say that he would run again for office. But he certainly kept the path to power well cleared.

Kagame said he respected the will of the Rwandan people and thanked them for voting in last week's referendum to allow him additional terms. And he had harsh words for the statements of foreign governments, like the one made by the White House.

"Statements that acknowledge our good results while depicting Rwandans as people incapable of either thought or feeling are not critical," he said in the speech. "They are deliberately abusive."

Kagame has positioned himself as the spokesman for African self-reliance. He stands against Western meddling in African politics.

And every conversation about Rwanda's future always dredges up the past. In 1994, Kagame led the Rwandan Patriotic Front to stop the genocide without help from Western countries. He's argued that those countries don't have the right to intervene now.

Rwandan Minister of Justice Busingye Johnston says that even 21 years after genocide, Rwanda isn't ready for the messy business of pluralistic democracy.

"The unity, the fabric of Rwanda was totally shattered," he says. "What was a nation was dismembered into scattered groups of human beings. "

As president, Kagame has made great strides against poverty and gender discrimination. Women dominate the Rwandan parliament. But his quest for unity is seen by some as autocracy.

Rwanda today has no civic freedom, no free press or political opposition. It is a small country dominated by one leader.

But what will Rwanda look like after Kagame?

J. Peter Pham, director of the Africa Center at the Atlantic Council, says the White House statement urging Kagame to step down at the end of his second term in 2017 is a mistake. As diplomacy, it is too simplistic.

"It is," he emphasizes, "when you look at the neighborhood."

Rwanda's southern neighbor, Burundi, has plunged into violence over the third-term bid by that country's president, Pierre Nkurunziza. To the west, the Democratic Republic of Congo threatens to go over the edge for the same reason.

Rwanda, in contrast, held an orderly referendum to change its constitution legally.

"The other challenge for the international community is, if not Kagame, who?" Pham says. "The political space in the country is such that it's very difficult, even for Rwanda experts, to name someone who could possibly step in."

The very political vacuum that Kagame has created also makes him exceptionally hard to unseat.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: December 22, 2015 at 12:00 AM EST
The Web version of this story originally stated that Rwanda's President Paul Kagame has been the country's only president since the 1994 genocide. In fact, Pasteur Bizimungu served as president of Rwanda from 1994 to 2000.
Gregory Warner
Gregory Warner is the host and creator of NPR's Rough Translation, a podcast that tells stories from far off places that hit close to home. Whether interviewing Ukrainians about the use of jokes on war's front lines, a Japanese apology broker navigating different cultural meanings of the word "sorry" or a German dating coach helping a Syrian refugee find love, Warner's storytelling approach takes us out of our echo chambers. Rough Translation has received multiple awards from the Overseas Press Club and was named one of the New York Times' top ten podcasts of 2021.