In a referendum last week on their country’s constitution, the people of Rwanda overwhelmingly approved an amendment that changed presidential term limits. The new rules mean that 58-year-old President Paul Kagame can run again for the presidency in 2017, and could theoretically serve until 2034, writes Prince Michael of Liechtenstein in his latest GIS publication.
Rwanda, Africa’s most densely populated country, had suffered through civil war and genocide for years until a rebel force commanded by Mr Kagame ended the slaughter in 1994. He then served as vice president and minister of defence until 2000, when he acceded to the presidency. Under a new constitution, Mr Kagame was re-elected to seven-year terms in 2003 and 2010.
President Kagame is probably Africa’s most successful leader. His goal is to develop what was once among the poorest nations on the continent into a middle-income country by 2020. Rwanda boasts few national resources, but under his leadership has achieved impressive growth rates of 7 to 8 per cent annually. Inflation has fallen to single digits. Although the majority of the population still makes its living through subsistence farming, an impressive services sector, especially in IT and telecommunications, has developed. Education and health care are priorities, crime is low and the country is safe.
Mr Kagame – in contrast to many other African leaders – has not been tainted by corruption. Though he has been accused of supporting the M23 rebels in the east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), the extent of that support, if any, is unknown. It is important to note that the situation in the eastern DRC is extremely fragile and that the government and its troops have a track record of committing atrocities. Rebels sometimes act in defence of minorities though they may, unfortunately, also commit cruel acts.
All in all, Mr Kagame’s track record is good. Unfortunately, Africa is a place where corrupt leaders tend to cling to power, as is happening now in neighbouring Burundi. However, Mr Kagame continues to enjoy the support of a solid majority of the population – as shown by elections whose results, on all evidence, have not been manipulated.
The administration of United States President Barack Obama has come out strongly against measures taken to allow Mr Kagame to run again. ‘President Paul Kagame has an opportunity to set an example for a region in which leaders seem too tempted to view themselves as indispensable to their own countries’ trajectories,’ said Samantha Power, the US ambassador to the United Nations, at the beginning of December. ‘We expect President Kagame to step down at the end of his term in 2017.’
The initiative has also been widely criticised in Europe. But the choice does not lie with the Americans or Europeans. The decision is the Rwandans’ alone to make. The international community should abstain from judgement.
We do not know what path President Kagame will take in the future, nor the details of how his succession will proceed. We do know, however, that he has promoted integration in a country with a history of discord, and that he has a clear, positive vision for its future. No critic of Rwanda’s choice has come forward with a credible alternative. In a country at an early stage of development, continuity can be essential – and President Kagame is not yet an old man.