The building of institutions in Rwanda and the succession debate

I have followed the debate about the two term limit for anyone to serve as the President of the Republic of Rwanda which is provided for by Article 101 of Rwanda’s 2003 constitution. I would like to add my two cents to the debate by focusing on two aspects which I believe both those who are for and against the lifting of term limits agree.

I have followed the debate about the two term limit for anyone to serve as the President of the Republic of Rwanda which is provided for by Article 101 of Rwanda’s 2003 constitution.  I would like to add my two cents to the debate by focusing on two aspects which I believe both those who are for and against the lifting of term limits agree. 

First that the basic tenet of democracy is choice; the sovereignty of a people to choose how they want to be governed and by whom, secondly, that the future of nations is secured by strong institutions.

Given that choice is a fundamental feature of democracy, it follows that a constitution should also safeguard and support the achievement of the aspirations of a people. A constitution is not simply a normative theory about the forms and procedures of governance. It must be relevant and capable of adapting to the ever changing conditions of society.

What must remain constant is the ability of the people to choose and pursue their national interest at any given time. Form should always follow function and not the other way round.

After the 1994 genocide against the Tutsis, Rwandans made choices which would define their future. These were well articulated by President Paul Kagame on the occasion of marking the 20th anniversary of the genocide, as unity, accountability and thinking big. Having made those choices, they set out to build the institutions that would support those choices. The process of building these institutions has been a difficult one notwithstanding successes registered in virtually every sector.

As is always the case with any reforms, the biggest obstacle to overcome has been the power of vested interests.

These powers are motivated by various factors ranging from greed, ego, outright resistance to change, and ignorance. However, the strong leadership and political commitment for these reforms by the President has largely prevailed over these vested interests, an achievement rarely registered by Governments in developing and developed countries alike.

Therefore as Rwandans head to 2017 when President Kagame’s term ends, Rwandans of all walks of life are beginning to get concerned about what will happen to the work of building these institutions to enable them stand the test of time for many generations to come.

The unique leadership qualities of President Kagame have enabled young institutions of Rwanda to deliver results that would otherwise be impossible with the limited resources, skills and experience. The following examples illustrate this point: although it only became a requirement of the law for judges in Rwanda to be lawyers in 2014, Rwanda has registered much success in combating corruption and gender based violence, and is ranked highly in terms of the speed of resolving commercial disputes.

The police force, which was only established in 2003, has been very successful in the maintenance of law and order to the extent that Rwanda is the safest country in Africa. The Office of the Auditor General is only ten years old but as of 2014, 70% of government institutions had been able to have clean, unqualified audit reports.

Albeit commencing on land reform in 2003, all land in Rwanda has been adjudicated and about 10 million title deeds issued. It is the only country in Africa to ever achieve 100% adjudication of land. The strengthening of institutions has had to be done in tandem with them achieving results despite their nascent state.

As President Kagame once put it “in Rwanda we have decided that development is a marathon which must be run like a sprint”.  For those who are fixated on Rwanda joining the rest of other African countries to lift term limits to enable a President run for a third term, they should perhaps also be asking themselves how different the Rwandan President is in terms of his track record as an effective political leader.

For many Rwandans, it is irrelevant what they will be thought of compared with the tangible gains the President’s continued leadership would yield for them individually and collectively.

Daron Acemoglu and James A Robinson, in their book “Why Nations Fail”, make a very compelling argument supported by history that nations succeed if they are able to build inclusive political and economic institutions and they fail when they have extractive political and economic institutions.

By inclusive, they mean that the institutions must not be captive of powerful vested interests at the expense of the rest of the population. Extractive institutions have the reverse meaning. However, the authors do not provide any ideas on how the institutions are built and sustained.

This is precisely because, there is no universal formula that can be followed by all societies. Different historical and cultural contexts will determine the path to be followed. There have been different factors that have historically been responsible for the development of the institutions. For some it has been bloody wars, and for others it was epidemics…etc.

One thing for sure is that inclusive political and economic institutions do not just happen and certainly not overnight. In Rwanda, the building of inclusive political and economic institutions have greatly benefited from the visionary, determined and selfless leadership of President Kagame.

During the Philadelphia Convention which came up with the American constitution in 1787, the delegates resolved not to provide for presidential term limits. Alexander Hamilton, one the founding fathers of America who was opposed to term limits, thought that a limitation on the presidential term involved “ the banishing of men from station, in which certain emergencies of state, might be of the greatest moment to the public interest and safety” This is true in respect of President Kagame and Rwanda.

He is a uniquely qualified leader and to deprive Rwandans of the freedom to retain him at this critical time would tantamount to risking the Rwandan state.

Presidential term limits are also arbitrary. There is no objective criteria to determine how long enough is for a particular context. The adequacy of the time a uniquely qualified leader can serve will depend on a myriad of factors, including the presence of alternative leaders.

Countries such as Singapore, Malaysia, South Korea have been transformed by exceptionally qualified leaders. Rwandans who argue for the lifting term limits draw from these experiences and in President Kagame they see the leader who will preside over the transformation Rwandans aspire for and deserve.

Contrary to what those against the lifting of term limits assert, the debate is not about monopoly of power by an individual, it is about the sovereignty of the people to choose an inclusive and participatory democracy underpinned by strong political and economic institutions.

It has been argued that term limits restrict a leader who may not be good from continuing to offer themselves for election even when they have a poor record. This argument, important as it is, misses a key consideration.

Terms limits on their own cannot prevent such an outcome. Only strong state institutions will ensure that good governance is entrenched in any country. In fact, term limits where the institutions are mature are unnecessary given that the people can always vote out a leader they do not wish to retain. 

Therefore, term limits are not an indispensable feature of democracy. The ability of the people to choose their leader is.

In conclusion, my take on this debate is that it is about the need to safeguard successes made in the building of institutions and the consolidation of gains so far registered. The Rwandans calling for the lifting of term limits are thinking like entrepreneurs. In the world of business, you never let go of an opportunity to wait for the next because it may never come and you will have lost time. I am, therefore, for the lifting of term limits.

The writer is the Managing Partner of Trust Law Chambers and a fellow of the Africa Leadership Initiative and the Aspen Global Leadership Network.