#RwandansDecide: The missing link in the term limits debate

It is a noise that was first shouted rudely and presumptuously into Rwanda from far beyond its borders, a means of control, but, now Rwandans must own the question of term limits and turn it into a civilised debate about their nation’s future.
People applaud during the term-limits amendment sitting at Parliament in July.  (File)
People applaud during the term-limits amendment sitting at Parliament in July. (File)

It is a noise that was first shouted rudely and presumptuously into Rwanda from far beyond its borders, a means of control, but, now Rwandans must own the question of term limits and turn it into a civilised debate about their nation’s future.

“I have been asked this question of term limits from the moment I was first elected, sometimes it seems as if I was elected just to leave”, so mused President Paul Kagame, when for the umpteenth time, he was yet again asked whether he would put his name forward as a Presidential candidate for a third time.

He was more right than he may have intended.

The President’s off the cuff remark pointed to a deeper truth about not only Rwanda, but, Africa’s relationship with its former colonisers.

It is a relationship about which for the sake of accuracy we should get used to referring to as neo-colonial powers, rather former colonial powers, for despite annual Independence Day celebrations in almost every African country, true independence remains elusive for most, at best a work in progress for some, with the West still assuming the role of latter day suzerain.

The pestering of President Kagame about a third term, virtually days into his first term, was no more than an attempt to exercise this suzerainty.

For many in the West, ranging from media commentators, academics, human rights groups, and of course governments, what is important is not so much whether Rwanda is well governed, for the good of all Rwandans, but more about whether Rwanda is governed in the way the West prescribes.

As early as 2012, Rwanda’s annus horribilis as far as relations with its Western allies were concerned, the then opposition spokesman for Britain’s Department for International Development (Dfid), Ivan Lewis, felt it his role, to declare who should or shouldn’t be Rwanda’s head of state, come 2017.

It is important to note that Lewis is not some maverick, but, a distinguished Member of Parliament, who had every reason to believe that he would soon be in government. At the time the opposition Labour Party was odds on to win the British general election of May 2015.

It should also be noted that his stance on Rwanda was supported by his opposite number in the Conservative Party, which in the end won that election.

Lewis will have assumed it his responsibility, as he saw it, to fire a shot across the bow of the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF), by listing various demands to which Rwanda had to adhere, if it were to continue to receive financial support from Britain.

The list of demands, couched as agreements, was nothing short of instructions on the policies Rwanda was to pursue both internally and in its foreign policy, especially in relation to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Lewis wanted the British government to state publicly, that President Kagame should not be a presidential candidate come 2017.

For any politician, let alone an opposition politician to effectively issue instructions to a sovereign nation, should be unheard of. And of course it is unheard of, except when it comes to the relationship between Western, and African nations, where it is virtually expected.

What is even more instructive is that as well as his own judgement, Lewis’s stance on Rwanda would certainly have been informed by lobbying from various NGOs, organisations like Human Rights Watch, and others who see it as their role to “apply pressure” on African governments.

Often, it should be said, they do so for good, laudable intentions, and it must be owned that for far too many African governments, the welfare of their people tend to be a low priority.

Just as often however, it is a struggle for control, with NGOs assuming a time honoured right to exercise influence over African countries. In 2012, Human Rights Watch in particular stepped up its lobbying against Rwanda, its efforts were rewarded with the discomfort that Rwanda endured, and from which it took time to recover.

Of course, they would say that such lobbying is against one man, President Kagame. This is disingenuous. To exert control, it is imperative that the leader be isolated from his people, thereby making it possible to claim that the intervention is to protect the people against an overbearing state, or a “big man” a “strong man”, or less imaginatively, a dictator, an autocrat.

For the Western consensus President Kagame may as well have been elected just so he can step down. By doing so, he would be conforming to what is prescribed for him.

We should be in doubt, President Kagame, and the RPF have been a startling surprise for the West,. Rwanda has thrown a spanner in the works of a well established system. By the rules of the established order, Rwanda’s recovery was to have been led by the West, with Rwandans playing a minor supporting role.

Kigali was supposed to have been home to representatives from a panoply of multilateral institutions and organisations. From there they would have panned out around the country to save Rwanda by day, returning to Kigali to play and rest by night.

Rwandans would undoubtedly have been allowed to choose their head of state, but, the process would have followed firm advice from the donor community. If Rwanda had followed this scenario, there would be no descriptions of President Kagame as a “controversial figure”, a “polarising figure.”

The country would also be little more than a UN protectorate, an unending experiment for developmental “experts.”

Instead, we have had a Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) which has sought and accepted help from the West as long as it was offered in a spirit of true partnership, and as long as it accepted that Rwandans need must take their destiny in their own hands.

And the approach is succeeding beyond anyone’s expectations. The jury is in, all questions settled, we can all go home. The government that Rwanda needs is the government that Rwanda has. This is accepted by even the most grudging among that jury.

Rwanda has received much needed support and help from the West, help that continues to be cherished.

Ironically however, all of that help and goodwill would have been for nought, had the RPF gone along with what is the norm across Africa, and along with the help, accepted making Rwandans bit actors in their own story.

The question of whether or not to amend the nation’s constitution to scrap term limits be it temporarily or permanently, is of profound importance, nevertheless, it never should have become the most important story about Rwanda.

It has become so because it is the most important story for Western opinion. As the days roll on towards 2017, the hue and cry about term limits will become ever more deafening.

Already the usual African commentators who wait to see where the West is pointing before they commentate on their own continent have picked up the baton and are running with it.

As part of the world community, Rwandans should listen to these voices, and then politely, but, firmly, explain to them that if their worry is the putative threat to democratic principles in Rwanda, then they should allow Rwandans their democratic right to decide who heads their government, and how that government is constituted.

Rwandans should now take ownership of the debate, and shape it. If the rest of the world wants to join in the conversation, they could be welcomed, but, on a clear understanding that it is framed by Rwandans, for Rwandans.

The people of Rwanda should be in doubt that their achievements so far owe everything to the determination of the RPF to forge a Rwandan path, an African path, instead of leading its people into the well worn cul-de-sac that is the post-colonial/neo-colonial African state.

The RPF too must hold fast to its revolutionary credentials as a movement, the best to withstand the attacks to come, for come they will. Its leadership must not lose sight of the fact that not even its most cherished friends can know more about how to best govern Rwanda than it does.

The RPF-led government has rightly been referred to as a learning government.

Yes, Rwanda has much to learn from others, from the Western world, and it should seek to draw deep from the fountain of human knowledge, experience and learning, but, these lessons must be applied through a Rwandan filter if they are to be of any use, and only Rwandans can properly interpret these.

The debate on term limits should be neither a response, nor a reaction to external howls of “autocracy” or “dictatorship”.

The moment it becomes either a response or a reaction, is the moment Rwandans begin to lose their way. It is the moment they begin to subordinate the conversation to someone else’s agenda, someone else’s motion for a debate that should be Ikiganiro, with all that that means.

If that is understood, it will immediately become obvious that this is not a conversation about one Paul Kagame. Were the question about President Kagame, the answer would be short and unequivocal.

Rusizi District residents welcome President Paul Kagame in June. (File)

There is never going to be a time when Rwandans do not want him to be at the head of their government. Even those who may dislike him, their own interests, will direct them to put a cross against the name Paul Kagame in any ballot box.

Any fair, objective observer will acknowledge that for much if not all of his adult life, President Kagame has sought to serve his people. The former US president Bill Clinton has described him as “one of the greatest leaders of our time.” Few Rwandans would disagree.

The man himself tends to bat away such praise. At times he even seems impatient with it, as though he would rather people focused on what needs to be done, and what he has done, rather than the person behind much of it.

For such an outstanding leader, it is interesting to note that he has never put himself forward for a position of leadership. He always seems to step forward to serve, only to be pushed into positions of leadership. Perhaps that’s the secret to his gifts as a leader.

He feels intensely the call to serve the needs of his people, his nation, but, does not feel the need to seek power, or positions of leadership. And because he cares more for service than the trappings of power, he can remain true to himself.

Yet, listen to RPF’s opponents, or indeed most Western observers, and they will have one believe that it is as certain as the sun rising over the hills of Rwanda, that President Kagame will be head of state after 2017.

Most Rwandans will hope they are right. Those who have regarded their President well enough however, will know that he will need convincing, if he is not to walk away from state house. The overwhelming majority who want him to run again, should know that the more meaningful the debate the greater the chance of convincing him to run.

Amending the constitution is a grave responsibility and it should always trigger a national conversation. One understands why term limits were written into the Rwandan constitution, to ensure that the democratic will of the people would not be usurped by power-hungry individuals.

There is however a contradiction at the heart of this. What if the democratic will of the people is to retain a particular candidate beyond the stipulated term limits? Why is it right to deny them their Democratic will to choose the leader they want?

There is clearly a problem of leaders not wishing to relinquish power. This is not exclusive to Africa, but, it is particularly true of Africa. Imposing term limits on the people (because it is the people on whom the limits are imposed, as it is they who are prevented from choosing their preferred candidate), is in many ways, fixing a problem at the wrong end.

Rather than seek to determine which individuals should or should not run for the Presidency, the focus should be on ensuring the independence, transparency and probity of the electoral system so that whoever becomes head of state is truly elected by the majority of the eligible electorate.

That way the people can retain their democratic right to elect whomsoever they wish, as often as they wish.

Rather than enshrine term limits in the constitution, enshrine protection of the electoral institutions in the constitution.

There is of course the argument that amending the constitution sets a bad precedent which may allow unpopular leaders to hang on to power. Again the response to this is to strengthen institutions.

Judging by the dramatic condemnations of any suggestion to amend the constitution, one would think that constitutional amendments are a rarely heard of exception, rather than what they actually are, the norm.

As the bible could have said, constitutions were made for man, not man for the constitutions. What is sacrosanct within the constitution is the will of the people, and if it is the will of the people to amend a part of the constitution, then that should be given due consideration.

And there are those who argue that the lifting of term limits implies that only one man can be trusted to govern well. It’s a valid argument, however it too must answer why it should not be permissible for a people to choose the leader they want, provided that leader is willing to heed their call. To say that there are others is surely far from a satisfactory response.

President Kagame has stated that the debate about term limits is not a question for him, but, for Rwandans, a conversation for them to have. He is surely right in this. He is the subject of the conversation.

Once the people of Rwanda have reached a consensus, he will then either choose to accede to their wishes or choose to deny them their wish.

One can understand why the majority of Rwandans may feel that there is little to debate. Why for them all that is left to say, is in this era of social media, #RunPaulRun, or #NoOneButPK.

The last twenty odd years have served as a debate, and their conclusion is that they need President Kagame’s leadership. When you have been skilfully delivered from an apocalyptic tempest into calm waters in an uncertain sea, what person in their mind would want to change the helmsman.

The debate however must be had, not least to avoid complacency and ensure constant renewal.

What is certain is that the real disastrous precedent that should be avoided is for Rwanda to arrive at a decision that is a result of either influence or pressure from outside.

Nothing good has ever come of that, and much that is insidious, destructive has come from it. It was the great man of science Albert Einstein who is reputed to have said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting a different result.

In other words, the moment the conversation turns on what President Obama opines, or pronouncements from Paris, or London, or the EU, or from this or that NGO, then Rwanda will be jeopardising the gains of the last twenty years, and only they know how costly it can be to follow such siren voices into an unknowable future.

The tragedy of Rwanda’s history, like that of Africa in general, begun with the trampling down of its culture, its sense of self in a mad self destructive rash to deliver itself into the self serving arms of external powers.

In rebuilding the Rwanda nation, the RPF has often looked back to the future, framing modern Rwanda within a context of Rwandan culture. This could be the healing of the schizophrenia that haunts not only it, but, Africa, which results from the racially bigoted notion that to be modern, Africans have to be europeanised.

It is an exciting journey from which Rwanda must not be diverted. They and only they have the right to determine the leadership that will lead them to even greater achievements.

The writer is a broadcast journalist based in London.

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