Why opponents of removing term limits should listen more to Rwandan citizens than their own theories and the preaching of America
Last week, the United States issued a statement calling on Rwanda not to amend the constitution and remove term limits on the presidency. America carries a false sense of morality, believing its own myth that her political values are superior and should be the guide for other “lesser” nations. Yet it has one of the most corrupt and dysfunctional political systems in the world and has consistently failed to live up to its self-proclaimed values. But that is a subject for another day. For now, let us debate Rwanda.
There are strong and legitimate reasons why it should have term limits. Incidentally, Kagame shares many of these reasons. There are also strong reasons why multitudes of Rwandans would like Kagame to stay on as president. The challenge is how this should be decided? Some say it should be decided by reference to a verse in the gospel of democracy. Term limits are sacrosanct; every country, regardless of circumstances, should have them. I used to embrace this view, so I will criticise it with the humility of experience.
Others think Rwanda should keep term limits because Western nations, which have been supportive of the nation’s reconstruction do not approve of it. Appeasing Western public opinion is important to buy legitimacy for African governments in large part because they are client states of Western powers. When the master speaks, Africans need to take his counsel seriously. (Post genocide Rwanda rejects this colonial-slavish submission).
Finally there is a perception in Africa that those presidents who have removed term limits have equally had bad records. So if Rwanda follows suit, many Kagame fans in Africa and elsewhere may begin to see him like “any other African despot trying to cling to power”. This is a big risk because Kagame has built a reputation as a progressive leader. In order to protect it (because it brings a lot of benefits to Rwanda via trade, tourism, credit and investment to the country) Rwanda should keep term limits. (Of course this assumption is false. Rwanda’s creditors, investors and trade partners want Kagame to stay longer because his presence reassures them).
In all the reasons for respecting term limits, the choice of the people of Rwanda, those most affected by the decision, is missing. Instead, the views of the US government, of the international democracy priesthood, etc. are the ones given most prominence. In short, the opponents of the amendment are saying that Rwandans should abandon politics; surrender the governance of their country to textbook theories and the preferences of America and Europe and Kagame’s fan base in Africa and elsewhere. Incidentally, the priesthood has always argued that the voice of the citizen should be the basis of democracy. Now that the vast majority of Rwandans want Kagame to stay, the priesthood is saying Kagame should act autocratically, reject the views of the majority of his people, and decide by diktat.
The unspoken view among those making these arguments is that Kagame and RPF are the ones manipulating public opinion in Rwanda in favour of removing term limits. This view is based on the assumption (actually a prejudice) that Rwandans lack agency. This is nonsense. This movement began on its own from the grassroots, taking RPF by surprise. When people started signing petitions, the upsurge was so big that RPF was actually trying to demobilise them. In all this, there is not a single person – soldier, minister, MP, local government official, name it – who can claim that he met Kagame and got encouragement from him to go and push for the amendment.
I say this with a lot of confidence because I have been a personally involved in it. When this mass movement began, Kagame was actually hostile to it. I was supporting him in resisting the pressure to amend the constitution and spent time discussing with him and other key players in Rwanda on how to organise a transition. But pressure from below was overwhelming. Kagame decided to test public opinion and went on country tours. He was overwhelmed by the sheer mass of people asking him to stay. He called the RPF meeting and argued passionately that change has to happen. He has held this line without gaining much support for it. Why?
It became obvious to all of us that Rwandans were not being irrational. The country has had a bad experience with political transitions, each one of them being accompanied by genocide – in 1959, 1974 and 1994. So when Rwandans express extreme anxiety about a possible transition, they are not being irrational. As a responsible leader, Kagame has to listen to them, accommodates their views, assuage their fears and ascertain their needs.
One could urge Kagame not to follow mass hysteria; that he should lead. It is true he can go into RPF and harangue and bully everyone to agree with him. Many will be intimidated and yield. But is the democracy priesthood really saying this is the right way Kagame should resolve this issue? Many responsible people in Rwanda think there is a better way. Kagame should manage public demands with a view to create a compromise. Rwanda can extend his presidency so that the country achieves clearly measurable landmarks that form a basis for a stable transition. I have written about these in `When Should Kagame Retire?’ (The Independent May 01, 2015)
To argue that every country should respect term limits as if it is a religious gospel is to abolish politics. If the constitution of a country is determined by a textbook theory based on some universal standard, why should there be politics at all. The advocates of term limits are anti-political. They deny citizens agency to shape the constitutions of their countries based on their experiences, fears and anxieties. They want Rwanda governed according to their theories rather than the preferences of its citizens.
In removing term limits, Rwandans could be making a big mistake. But whatever happens, it is Rwandans to reap the fruits or bear the consequences. That is why they should be the ones to make that choice. If it is a mistake, they will learn from it. Some countries in Africa have attempted removal of term limits and it has generated instability – witness Congo DR and Burkina Faso. But in Rwanda, this effort is stimulating optimism and excitement. My advice to the democracy priesthood; you cannot love Rwanda more than Rwandans. So let Rwandans shape their politics.