Presidential term-limits: one size fits most, but not all

It is winter season in London; the sun’s rays are hitting the earth at a shallow angle, the days are short, the nights are long. It is freezing, and frankly I cannot wait for spring to arrive. In the meantime, however, I need to keep warm buying myself a winter hat. 

So last weekend I went to one of the capital’s retail stores and while there, a particular hat caught my attention. It was a waterproof trapper hat (essential if you live in London), the price was reasonable; colour wasn’t flashy, and just what I was looking for…that was until I tried it on.

The hat did not fit comfortably as I had hoped despite its display of a one-size-fits-all retail-tag to would-be customers. I quickly considered my options.

My experience in a retail store has a lot in common with the ongoing dialogue regarding presidential term-limits in Rwanda. Some have argued that we must adhere to the current provisions of limitations provided for by the Constitution, while others maintain that we reserve the right to amend our Constitution as we see fit to accommodate unforeseen events.

In this piece, I want to suggest that whatever we decide, we must not settle for a one-size-fits-all approach because much like now, in future, a thousand cases may arise for which the legislator has not provided, and to perceive that flexibility is a sign of weakness is not logical.

To begin with, discussions on term-limits are nothing new. Ancient Greece and Rome had elected officials and the subject of term-limits was always up for discussion.

Term limits ensure that elected public officials especially cannot remain in power indefinitely. They do this by putting a restriction on the number of terms someone may be elected to a public office.

In some countries, term limit provisions only restrict the number of consecutive terms a leader may serve in a particular office; the majority of countries, however,

Rwanda included, limit the total number of terms over a lifetime.

Lifetime term-limits are much more restrictive, since an official may never again be a candidate for an office in which they have served the limit of terms.

On the other hand, there are nations without term-limits, period. This means that a leader could conceivably be re-elected to the same seat over and over as long as their popularity holds up.  

Take Canada, for example, there are no limits on time or number of terms a prime minister can stay in office. Jean Chretien served three consecutive terms as Canadian Prime Minister.

Likewise, French presidents can stay in the top job indefinitely, as there are no limits on the time or the number of terms they are able to serve.

Jacques Chirac served a total of 12 years. In the UK, prime ministers can serve for an unlimited number of terms, provided they are re-elected, or enjoy the support of their own caucuses.

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair won three consecutive elections. Sweden is another democratic nation whose prime minister can serve for an indefinite number of terms. Goran Persson served as prime minister from 1996 to 2006. Belgium and Italy are also not party to term limits.
 
But it is written in our Constitution…

Article 101 of the Rwandan Constitution stipulates that the President of the Republic is elected for a term of seven years renewable only once. It reiterates that under no circumstances shall a person hold the office of President of Republic for more than two terms.

Some of us will use this to argue that it would be unlawful to ignore these terms by allowing the incumbent president to seek another term in office after a referendum.

In addition, it is claimed that term-limits were put in place to ensure a wider range of perspectives in government and to prevent power from being concentrated in the hands of one person.

Others, who are mainly outsiders, may wish to use this Constitution article to hold us hostage to rigidity without the possibility to pause, reflect and evaluate our laws which determine our long-term goals and the process through which we can achieve these goals.

To them any such amendment is a betrayal of a set of principles which they may or may not practice but so dedicatedly insist onto the rest of us. Notably, any attempt to alter such principles offers them an automatic foothold in domestic affairs on the account of ensuring accountability for their hand-outs. 

Way forward

We cannot ignore some of the concerns raised by cynics; we must take time to evaluate them.

However, with the same level of gravitas, we must note that applying term limits with a one-size-fits-all approach just because it is the mantra of the day we won’t be any the wiser.

This is because, failure to acknowledge our country’s current real need for a strong and experienced leader can end up preventing the best person for a job from serving in it; at times, experience and continuity are more important than change for the sake of change.

In Rwanda’s case, it is likely that transition in top leadership may stall ongoing development projects before anyone benefits from them, which, in turn, may serve to derail us off course vis-à-vis our vision to be self-reliant and truly independent.

We should not shy away from taking the road less travelled; after all we did it with reconciliation, Gacaca courts, and Umuganda. We can still eliminate the desire to establish principles so firmly as to take away the power of the people to suspend their effects.

If, however, foreign historical events are the more reassuring ones, you may be comforted by the fact that at a time of economic depression and war in America, term limits were relaxed in order to allow President Franklin D. Roosevelt to stay in power because he was considered a strong leader.

In any event, if we are still in a transition, why shouldn’t President Paul Kagame become our Roosevelt?

junior.mutabazi@yahoo.co.uk