Sierra Leone Telegraph: 19 January 2016
On 31 December 2015, in his greetings to the nation, Rwandan president Paul Kagame announced that he would run a third term.
“You asked me to continue to lead this country after 2017. Given its importance to you, I can only accept.”
Kagame’s announcement, intended as much for international observers as for the people of Rwanda, was anything but spontaneous. Instead, it was the final step of a meticulously prepared political process that started in October 2014 when three satellite parties of Kagame’s Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) called for a revision of the constitution. At the time it limited the president to two seven-year terms.
Then, in February 2015, several prominent Rwandans published articles in support of Kagame in The New Times, the pro-government newspaper. They hailed the president’s achievements and expressed their desire for him to stay in office – Rwanda still needed him.
A well-ordered strategy
In mid-March, the mayor of Kigali, the country’s capital, indicated that according to regional officials, citizens were demanding a reform of the Constitution.
In late May, the Parliament announced that 2 million people had signed a petition asking that Kagame be given the possibility of running for a third seven-year term.
By June 15, the petition had 3.6 million signatures (out of 6 million voters), and the RPF came out in favour of the constitutional reform.
On July 14, Parliament voted unanimously the principle of a constitutional revision and formed a committee to propose a national referendum. A month later their report was presented to Parliament. It testified that the majority of the population wanted a constitutional amendment, and that only a dozen Rwandans would have voted against the project.
Taking their justification from the large number of petitions, on October 28 the Parliament approved the new law to be submitted to a referendum. It stipulates that the current president could run again in 2017 for another term.
Then, in 2024 — year zero of the new Constitution — the seven-year term would be replaced by a five-year one, renewable once. This ingenious arrangement gives Paul Kagame the possibility of running for two new mandates in 2024. He thus could potentially stay in office until 2034.
On December 18, according to official results, 98.9% of Rwandans approved changes to the constitution. (Photo by James Akena / Reuters)
Finally, on December 18, the following question was put to the country’s 6.4 million voters:
Do you agree with the constitution of the Republic of Rwanda which was amended this year of 2015?
Of the responses, 98.9% were “yes”. Only the small Democratic Green Party, which has no members in Parliament, dared to protest, filing a petition in the Supreme Court against any reform of the Constitution. It was dismissed.
Throughout this operation, Kagame kept the country in suspense, not revealing his intentions, saying that he hadn’t decided.
A well-controlled spontaneity
This orderly and sophisticated campaign achieved its goal without a hitch. It culminated with the production of a “spontaneous” mass petition, a method portrayed by the authorities as a democratic consultation.
All that then remained was to give legal form to the popular will with the triumphant referendum on December 18.
The widespread use of popular petitions has been singled out for criticism by international observers, even those who have regularly celebrated the “new Rwanda”.
They point out that government control of local populations is sufficiently tight, and that those who expressed opposition to a third term – and thus against the president – could be putting themselves in danger.
Phil Clark, a lecturer at the University of London, highlighted the “coercion” being exercised over the population:
Rural Rwandans report that local authorities went house to house cajoling voters to sign the petition, which many did multiple times.
Indeed, research in Rwanda describes how communities are tightly controlled by a web of local authorities. The result is a widespread surveillance system that allows for public displays of obedience only.
Kagame was appointed vice president in 1994 and chairman in 2000, then elected president in 2003 and 2010. Each time he has reportedly obtained more than 90% of the vote, and worked carefully to crush any open opposition by the elite or the public, using methods whose brutality has been regularly denounced by human rights organizations.
In Washington, the end of the illusions?
The US, Rwanda’s primary ally, has long denounced presidents for life. In July 2009 during a trip to Ghana, US President Barack Obama criticized African leaders who change their constitution to stay in power.
In July 2015 he repeated his comments while in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, saying that no one should be president for life.
On September 4 the US State Department reacted negatively to the Rwandan Parliament’s decision to amend the Constitution and, on November 17, said that Kagame should honour his earlier promise to retire in 2017.
None of these declarations had any apparent effect. In Kagame’s December 31 speech, he responded by contrasting Rwanda’s public petitions with American legalism: Exemplary behaviour will be for later. In the short term, the people have spoken.
On January 2 the State Department expressed the US’s “deep disappointment”, and the next day, Samantha Power, its ambassador to the United Nations, issued the following tweet:
In Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Congo-Brazzaville, Burkina Faso, leaders wanting to repeal constitutional limits to their staying in office were met with strong resistance. The president of Burkina Faso was ousted last fall; the president of Burundi was overruled, plunging the country into a violent crisis.
In Rwanda, nothing of the sort. The authoritarian exercise of power is firmly established, especially in its ability to monitor and control local populations. Under such circumstances, with a campaign that was carefully controlled and put in place, it’s no surprise that the end result was a “popular victory”.
About the author
Claudine Vidal is a sociologist, emeritus research director at the CNRS and member of the Centre for African Studies (EHESS).