I have read about the ongoing debate on the issue of the Rwandan presidential term with a lot of interest but this would be the first time I put my thoughts about it on paper. This is simply because I didn’t want to write in haste and be misinterpreted as a result…so here goes.
I’ve vacillated between the pro- and anti-term extension schools of thought, because both ‘teams’ make some good points.
On one hand those who wish to maintain the current constitutional arrangement, which mandates a two-term seven year presidential lifespan, argue that amending Article 101 of the Constitution (which reads ‘The President of the Republic is elected for a term of seven years renewable only once. Under no circumstances shall a person hold the office of President of Republic for more than two terms)’ is a slap in the face of the idea of constitutionalism and what it stands for i.e. that a document is more powerful and sacred than an individual and EVEN public opinion.
I must add a note here: A president CAN enjoy another term if the Article 101 is amended in it’s entirety. And to do so we’d need a referendum.
On the other hand, a view that has been espoused by men a lot more accomplished than me, namely Professor Manasseh Nshuti, Col. (retired) Joseph Karemera, Dr Pierre-Damien Habumuremyi, among others, is that a ‘mere’ piece of paper cannot overpower the will of the people, especially when they have been fortunate enough to have the kind of leadership that Rwanda was sorely lacking for the first three or so decades of self-rule. They argue that changing the captain with the ship still in stormy waters is a risk that the country can ill afford, especially with the kind of past it has had and the kind of progress that it is making currently.
My legal training pushes me towards the former view but my life as a Rwandan, who has lived in the country since 1994 and watched it grow, pushes me towards the latter.
I’m in a bit of a state. So instead of choosing a side, I would like to ask both sides a few questions whose answers will help me make up my mind.
To the anti-change brigade, I must ask, why do you believe that the issue of term limits is a no-go area? The document has been amended more than once and you didn’t scream bloody murder. Secondly, if the constitution was agreed to and voted for by the Rwandan people, why aren’t they allowed to change their minds? Is it because you believe that they don’t know what is best for them?
To the pro-change team I ask, why do you believe Article 101 was initially added? What was the rationale for it? What has changed since 2003?
Term limit clauses (whether for mayors, governors, city council members and presidents) have historically been added to laws in order to remove the risk of a leader becoming so entrenched that they could ride roughshod over the will of those who initially put them in office.
I believe that is why we, Rwandans, agreed to Article 101. What I must ask the pro-change lobby is, if we remove the term limit clause, what guarantee will we have that a situation that Article 101 attempts to nip in the bud, will not occur? What guarantees can they give us that in 20, 30, 40 years from now, we won’t have a leader that is more powerful than the will of the people?
We can assume that that will never happen, but history has shown that despotic leaders, who know how to pit competing groups against each other, can rule for eons despite their unpopularity. Nicolae Ceausescu and Mobutu Sese Seko are just two figures I can name.
The fact that we are enjoying the fruits of an extraordinary leadership is obvious. The fact that we deserve to enjoy this leadership is obvious as well (especially with the kind of luck we had post-independence). So making the debate about a single individual is a non-starter for me, because the answer is so black and white. Of course keeping President Kagame at the helm of the ship is good idea.
The main question is, if and when the people decide to amend Article 101, how do we do ensure that under no circumstance will a single person become more powerful than an entire society?
Would we, for example, amend Article 101, remove term limits and add new clauses that take some powers away from the executive branch of government and therefore neuter it?
There are a lot more questions than answers right now. Ultimately, I would like to see more and more Rwandan youth join this debate, its more about them than anyone else for they are the future and they need to partake in conversations and decisions that will directly affect them and the next generation.
The author is an editor at The New Times.