The benchmarks that Rwandans should discuss as forming the basis for sustainable peaceful transfer of power
President Paul Kagame believes in presidential term limits and
desires to retire in 2017. I say this with a lot of confidence because I
have had many discussions with him on this matter and his views have
been consistent. He is also an admirer of former Tanzanian president,
Julius Nyerere, whose example of voluntary retirement inspired(s) him.
Fortunately for Kagame, he can still retire. The question is: When?
Unfortunately for him, 2017 is not an appropriate year. Tanzania in 1985
was very different from Rwanda today.
Tanzania has always enjoyed an unusually high degree of national
unity since before independence. Many scholars wrongly attribute this to
Nyerere. This is only partly true – and only in the sense that Nyerere
helped consolidate that unity. Yet even during colonialism Tanganyika
was not characterised by the ethnic/religious divisions prevalent
elsewhere in most of Africa. In the 1960 elections, for example, TANU
won 70 out of 71 seats in parliament – the other one seat going to an
independent candidate. The opposition Africa National Congress won only
0.3% of the vote.
This was different from most of colonial Africa where elections did
not produce political parties with such overwhelming national support.
Colonialism (depending on the pre-colonial social formations) had
fostered strong ethnic or religious identities. Emergent political
parties were therefore based on identity, a factor that made it
difficult to craft unity.
Thus, in 1985 Tanzania did not have the kind of ethnic schisms that
exploded into genocide in Rwanda. The nation had not suffered military
coups and civil war. It was not in a dangerous neighborhood with armed
gangs training in neighboring countries and supported by some powers,
ready to strike. And although Nyerere had built a nation, he had
destroyed its economy, GDP having shrunk by 40% during his tenure. Since
he had secured the nation, he needed to retire so that someone can
rebuild the economy.
Rwanda’s ethnic schisms have been explosive. Every political
transition has stimulated genocide – 1959-62, 1972-73 and 1990-94. If
Rwandans worry about a transition in 2017, their fears may not be rooted
in current realities but are understandable given their history. This
is especially so because nearly its entire mature population lived
through the 1994 genocide and it’s emotional scars still torment their
conscience – regardless of which side in the conflict they were. This is
the demography that suffers extreme anxiety about any transition and is
now calling on Kagame to stay.
Therefore in addressing the issue of a political transition in
Rwanda, we are not dealing with an ordinary situation. I have visited
many parts of the country and been struck by the anxiety ordinary
citizens express when they hear about a possible transition in 2017. In
pondering his desired (and deserved) retirement, it is absolutely
necessary Kagame appreciates the fears his citizens are expressing.
Theoretically, term limits are good, but not in every situation and
certainly not at this particular moment in Rwanda.
Of course Kagame’s critics are already saying that they always knew
he is power hungry. Yet these critics are ignorant of the man’s
character. The demands on him to stay are imposing a heavy burden on
Kagame’s conscience. He has told me severally of his own desire to
retire, to be able to rest and enjoy the pleasures of ordinary life. And
quite significant, his family (wife and children) has also been
insistent on him to retire even before 2017. Kagame is torn between
honouring his word (thereby disregarding his citizens) and accepting the
demands of the situation to run in 2017.
If Kagame’s retirement is enough to consolidate a culture of peaceful
transfers of power, when should it happen? The year 2017 may possess
symbolic importance because it is prescribed by the constitution. But
does it address the fundamentals of a successful transition? Respect for
the current term limits in the constitution just for the sake of it
would be an uncritical embrace of the rituals of constitutionalism
without thinking about their functional efficacy. The fundamental issue
for Rwanda should be: What are the conditions necessary for the country
to organise a political transition without causing unnecessary anxiety
among its people? I want to suggest four benchmarks in demography, per
capita income, education and urbanisation.
On Demography, Rwanda will be securely stable if the majority of its
adult voting population will be composed of people either unborn or too
young to have been psychologically affected by the 1994 genocide. The
critical year is 2034 when those born after the genocide will be 40
years and will have taken over most of the leadership of the country.
Secondly, studies show that democracy tends to stimulate instability in
poor countries. It is when a country reaches a per capita income of
US$2,700 that democracy begins to promote stability while autocracy
begins to create instability. This statistic is extremely important for
Rwanda because it has had the worst record of transitions of power in
contemporary history. Using this yardstick and given Rwanda’s current
rate of growth and per capita income at $750, the country will cross
this milestone in 2031.
The third stabilizing factor is education attainment. Most research
shows that when more than 60% of the adult population of a country has
attained a minimum of 13 years of schooling, a nation’s potential for
stability and democracy increases. This Rwanda will achieve by 2033.
Finally is urbanisation. The more rural a society is, the more it tends
to retain attachment to ethnic and other vertical identities. More
urbanised societies tend to acquire more horizontal identities. At the
current rate of urbanisation, Rwanda will have more than 50% of its
population living in urban areas by 2035.
Kagame enjoys overwhelming support and legitimacy. These are
political resources from which Rwanda can draw to sustain its momentum
towards achieving the aforementioned benchmarks that will facilitate
successful and reliable transition. Calls for Kagame to retire in the
arbitrary year of 2017 may help the president’s personal prestige but do
not address the fundamentals necessary for a mature transition. This is
not to disregard the concerns of those who care about the president’s
image. I am an advisor to Kagame and I care about his image deeply. So
this subject has troubled me as well. However, I also do not think that
the desire to keep Kagame’s personal prestige (assuming this assertion
is valid) should supersede the necessity of organising a transition
based on structural fundamentals in Rwanda.