KIGALI, Rwanda — There's no shortage of people asking for Rwandan President Paul Kagame to extend his time in office. Some 3.7 million Rwandans — nearly three quarters of registered voters — allegedly signed a petition calling on Kagame to stay past his 2017 term limit. The ruling party recently signaled its approval, and parliament is expected to give its rubber stamp to the proposal next month. It seems the only person not taking a stance is Kagame himself.
Technically president since March 2000, but effectively in power since the end of the brutal 1994 genocide that he is often credited with helping to stop, Kagame will soon run up against his own constitution. When it came into effect in 2003, it capped the presidency at two seven-year terms, which means Kagame's time is set to expire in August 2017. It would take a constitutional referendum for him to be able to run again.
As the talk about a possible third term comes to a head, the longtime leader has remained guarded. At an early April press conference that was broadcast live across the country, one local journalist tentatively broached what was on everyone's minds. Kagame pounced. "What is the issue?" he quipped, then added with a laugh, "I haven't made any application for a job beyond 2017."
The Rwandan president proceeded to explain that there are two schools of thought on term limits. One, he said, holds that the constitution should be respected, while the other suggests that he should be allowed to serve another term. "I belong to the first [camp]," said Kagame, emphasizing that it would take a lot of convincing for him to change his mind.
His words may have been sincere — or not. Regardless, Kagame's decision is far from trivial. It will define not only his legacy but also that of his country. If he stays, Rwanda stands to risk its status as a bastion of progress and a development darling. If he goes, change could throw one of the region's most stable countries into an uneasy flux.
Journalist Robert Mugabe, for one, balks at the idea that Rwanda would be lost without Kagame. "To say that everything will fall down if there is no Kagame, it's poor thinking. It's very manipulative," he said. Mugabe, an editor of the independent website Great Lakes Voice, is one of the few outspoken government critics who still lives in the country; most of the others have been driven into exile by Rwanda's unforgiving security service.
Mugabe, who once served as a soldier with the RPF forces that freed the country from the genocidal government in 1994, calls attention to the culture of fear instilled by the current regime. "There is no free media; there is no free civil society; there is no opposition."
Hyperbole abounds in the other direction as well. Fanatic displays of devotion to His Excellency include a rural woman who told reporters she would commit suicide if Kagame wasn't re-elected in 2017. In the 2003 and 2010 elections, he reportedly won 95 and 93 percent of the respective votes. And, while it would be easy to dismiss such sentiments and figures as propaganda, it's also not hard to see why Kagame might enjoy broad support.
Since 2001, Rwanda's GDP has grown at about 9 percent per year, making it one of the fastest-growing economies in the world. Poverty has dropped precipitously as well, and Rwanda aims to become a middle-income country by 2020. Even Mugabe says that Kagame has been good for the country, and would likely win a free and fair election if he were to run in 2017. "He's a hero," said Mugabe. "But he needs to go."
Activist Jean Michel Habineza, though, argues that all the third-term talk masks a bigger problem. "The real issue is Rwanda after Kagame," says Habineza, the co-founder of iDebate Rwanda.
Whether Kagame leaves office tomorrow or in a decade, both Mugabe and Habineza say it's an inevitability that no one appears to be planning for. Kagame's dominance of the political scene has kept any potential candidates at bay. Names of possible successors are bandied about: Richard Sezibera, secretary-general of the East African Community; Donald Kaberuka, outgoing president of the African Development Bank; and Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo are all more than qualified to take on the job as president — but none stand out as the obvious choice, or appear interested in the job.
For better or worse, Kagame has a notoriously iron grip on Rwanda. His stern, bespectacled portrait adorns the wall of nearly every business and government building in the country. But it's hard to say whether his visage conjures feelings of admiration or fear. He has been accused of assassinating political opponents, physically beating his staff, and stifling the media. Just this month, two parliamentarians and a member of the East African Legislative Assembly resigned over disagreement, it's speculated, with a measure that would make a third term constitutionally legal. It's not the first time dissent has prompted removal.
"I retired [in 2013]," said ex-Minister of Justice Tharcisse Karugarama, before correcting himself. "I was retired. I think that's better to say." His removal came shortly after an article in the Guardian cited him as opposing a third term. Karugarama says that the newspaper misinterpreted him and that it played a part in his dismissal. He chooses his words more carefully now and repeatedly sidestepped questions about the term limit. "I believe that my president will respect the constitution, will respect the law," he concluded. "He's a man of his word."
In the realm of East African autocracies, however, the "law" is often a moving target. To Rwanda's north, in Uganda, President Yoweri Museveni, once hailed as a "new breed" of African leader, is still in power nearly 30 years later, with no signs of stepping down soon. Across Rwanda's southern border, in Burundi, President Pierre Nkurunziza's interpretation of the constitution has led to violent civil unrest, a failed coup attempt, and a refugee crisis. And to the west, Democratic Republic of Congo's President Joseph Kabila sparked violent protests and rioting when he made moves to delay next year's elections.
The African landscape isn't entirely bleak, however. In May, Goodluck Jonathan became the first Nigerian incumbent to lose an election and peacefully transfer power. Kagame, too, could buck the regional tendency towards autocracy. "[Kagame] has a chance to make history," said Habineza. "But if he changes the constitution, he will never make that history."
Rwanda is often held up as a paragon of international development. For the president to stay in power beyond 2017 could bring that crashing down, and the potential impact isn't lost on Kagame. Earlier this spring, he took the precaution of consulting members of his Presidential Advisory Council — a group of loyal "friends" that has included the likes of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Pastor Rick Warren — about possible Western reactions to a third term bid.
Aid dollars still account for 30 to 40 percent of Rwanda's budget, and past reductions have been hard felt. In 2012, Germany, the Netherlands, the United States, the United Kingdom, and the European Union all cut or suspended their aid over Rwanda's support for the M23 — a Tutsi-led rebel group in Eastern Congo that fomented widespread unrest, threatened Rwanda's peace-for-progress bargain, and was ultimately defeated.
While the United States says that it supports the idea of a new, democratically elected Rwandan leader in 2017, the State Department has yet to elaborate what its reaction to a third term might be. One diplomatic source believes that the West is up against a red line, and that no amount of financial leverage could dissuade Kagame from running if he wanted to. "It's ultimately one man's decision," the source stressed.
Kagame is rapidly approaching the fork in the road, and neither path forward looks particularly smooth. A third term bid puts Rwanda's image — and potentially its wallet — on the line, while talk of Kagame stepping down evokes fears of chaos. So far though, the president has done little to stem the conjecture and, recently, he's even been an active contributor to the confusion.
At his April press conference, Kagame dismissed his aide's attempt to cut the session short, staying until he had worked his way through all of the journalists' questions. About a third of the nearly hour and a half session was devoted to 2017.
"I am open to going, I am open to not going," Kagame said at one point, pausing for a moment and practically daring journalists to push him. No one did.