President Kagame is deeply conflicted about the possibility of serving another term beyond 2017, even after a cross section of Rwandese Patriotic Front leaders and ordinary party members, one after another, called upon him to consider it.
It was inevitable that this debate would hit a big stage at some point, and that occasion presented itself at the RPF’s extended National Executive Committee (NEC) meeting at the Amahoro “Petit Stade”, a meeting that began late Friday afternoon last week and went on almost into the wee hours of Saturday morning.
Kagame, addressing the auditorium containing a multitude estimated at 2000 strong, began his speech with a subject that exasperates him like few others can – the DR Congo and its proneness to dragging Rwanda into its problems. It was when the President introduced the next item in his speech that everyone began cocking heads into several stances of the highly attentive. He brought up the term limit issue.
Kagame said, “Now this is the most sensitive topic of the evening and I want to give you some serious homework”, but did not immediately delve into what that homework would entail. He instead introduced a topic within the topic – “change and continuity”, and what Rwandans are going to do about it come 2017.
“I have noticed that people, whether in the villages, whether in the media, are very exercised about what I will do come 2017,” Kagame said. “Foreigners have been asking, ‘will you step down?’ When I said ‘yes’, they did not seem satisfied. “When they kept insisting, I realized whatever I said would never satisfy them, so when recently (CNN’s Christiane) Amanpour asked me whether come 2017 I would step down, I said ‘come that time, what will happen will happen!’”
Now Kagame was throwing the question out to the gathered Rwandans – big RPF party honchos, members of the cabinet, members of parliament, senior civil servants, members of the business community, young professionals, university student leaders and others.“What is the best course of action for our country come that time?”
Now at this point the skeptical would be going, aha! See what we told you? Kagame has become another typical African leader; he will stay on! And in fact that impression would be strengthened by what several people would proceed to say the moment the floor was ceded to them to give their views on this question and its serious implications for the future of the country.
The first man (not someone in any leadership position) immediately called for a scrapping of the articles limiting the head of state to two terms. These articles cannot serve Rwandans very well if they limit our ability to decide who leads us, and President Kagame has done the best job anyone could have done in steering this country to progress, said the man who appeared to be a lawyer and who was speaking in Kinyarwanda. “We want you Mr. Chairman of the RPF and President of the Republic to carry on even after 2017!” Kagame listened intently, neither smiling, nor offering him any form of encouragement in his line of thought.
The second speaker, a woman, said it is people who make laws, and that laws are not written in stone. “If the articles limiting presidential term limits impede us in choosing the best leader we have, then these laws can be re-written and changed!
“Mr. President and Chairman of the RPF, we beseech you, you have been such a good leader, we ask it of you with utmost sincerity, when the time comes please present your candidature and we will give you another mandate!”
But the skeptical would be wrong in immediately assuming that with this kind of discussion a presidential term extension is a done deal. Kagame said a number of things that illustrate, at best, the level of ambiguity with which he confronts the issue.
“To me, the usual arguments by some leaders that no one is capable of taking over after them, that would be enough in itself to make me leave! If all that time you have led a system incapable of identifying or grooming another leader, then you have failed and can leave.”
But on the other hand, “We can’t let the values of foreigners be imposed upon us, and how we conduct our affairs,” said Kagame who was speaking alternately in Kinyarwanda and English.
He offered examples of African countries that followed the dictates of Western nations and followed their models of “democratic” government and asked, “Where are they now? Where is Mali now? It is said they democratically elected a new government, but now what is happening to the country? What is happening to the Central African Republic?”
The compelling argument for the president to even be listening to proponents of a term extension is crystallized in a letter an ordinary resident of Rusizi District wrote the President a few lines of which were quoted. “Nyakubawha Perezida (Honorable President”), the letter said, “Before you took over leadership, we were nothing. We had nothing. Now thanks to you we have built good lives. We have property. If you were to leave we don’t know where we would go, now even Bukavu is not an alternative!”
These are the ordinary villagers, the multitudes of people interested only in the stability and certainty they have ever known only under the RPF administration. The audience applauded long and loud upon hearing the contents of the letter. Many of them shared the sentiments of the Rusizi man.
The debate wasn’t entirely about people urging the President to stand for another term however. Someone stood up and said Rwanda could copy from the Chinese model, and have leaders in waiting whom everyone knew. Another person said the RPF as a party was strong and indeed among its ranks were individuals who could make good replacements for the President.
A woman who was among the last speakers however articulated some views that everyone seemed to nod in agreement to.
The RPF as an institution is very good, she said, but it has not yet gained the same level of confidence in the population as that which the baturage have in President Kagame.
She concluded, “In the future if the RPF gains the same levels of confidence the baturage have for the President, then we will be confident in any alternative candidate it presents.”
As the speeches wound down, the President finally said the homework was obvious to everyone present: find the answers – what is the formula we should use, going forward, as we determine the future of our country?