Kagame: The unbelievable truth

The Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) on June 17 nominated Paul Kagame as its presidential candidate in this year’s elections. Although he was unopposed, the RPF still conducted a secret ballot to elect him. Out of 1930 delegates, 1929 voted for Kagame, one vote was spoilt.

The Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) on June 17 nominated Paul Kagame as its presidential candidate in this year’s elections. Although he was unopposed, the RPF still conducted a secret ballot to elect him. Out of 1930 delegates, 1929 voted for Kagame, one vote was spoilt.

I have been wondering how to tell this story from the position of the knowledge that I have as a journalist who has access to decision making processes in Rwanda.

I deal with Rwandans at all levels – from the president to ministers, from high ranking to low ranking military, police and security officials, businesspersons, ordinary citizens, students, civil servants etc.


I can, for example, reveal that the single spoilt vote was cast by Kagame; something he shared with me. The other thing many people outside Rwanda might not know is that nine other political parties in Rwanda were represented at the RPF convention and all of them adopted Kagame as their flag bearer.


This is under the National Consultative Forum of Political Organisations, which is designed under the Rwanda constitution as a permanent consultative mechanism to promote dialogue and consultation among political parties on key decisions in the country.


To people outside Rwanda, the idea of one party getting involved in the decision-making of another party sounds choreographed. But this is because most people have deeply entrenched biases and prejudices about how democracy and elections should work. In Rwanda, democracy means working together in unity.

Over the years, I have been liberated from the prejudices that used to inform my analysis of events in Rwanda, and Africa. I now focus on the actual factors that drive particular political decisions.

It is difficult to tell the story of postcolonial Africa, and most especially Rwanda, because every time something happens, people refer to their prejudices instead of the facts.

This confusion is driven largely by the dependence by even African narrators on Western scholars and journalists. The lack of understanding, and sometimes deliberate distortion, is also aided by the inability of major players in key decision making processes in Africa to tell the story of what actually happened.

Yet this is the only way the conversations about Rwanda and Africa can shift from speculation on “what must have happened” to “what actually happened.”

Rwandans challenged

Even what President Kagame said in his speech to accept the nomination to be the RPF flag bearer can be baffling to those outside Rwanda. Kagame said he would have preferred not to be running for president. He said, instead, he would have preferred to stand in front of the same audience and pass the leadership to another person. It had not happened, he said, because the RPF, the other political parties and the general citizenry actually asked him (I would say pushed him) to stand.

“I should be standing here today talking about a new leadership but you decided otherwise,” he said.

He added: “The pressure not to run again was less informed and meaningless than the pressure for me to accept it. I had no role in this but to accept it.”

He had accepted to take on the responsibility of being President for another seven years, he said. But he added: I want Rwandans to think about what should be done during these next seven years to resolve the issues that led you to ask me to stay on so that in 2024 I can perform the responsibility of passing on the leadership.

He then challenged young people to aspire for leadership.

“Aspire to be a leader, even a president. But above all, aspire to be a good leader. That’s what Rwandans need and deserve”, he said, suggesting that he is even thinking of a successor as a person who would have been in their early teens when the genocide happened in 1994. He asked Rwandans to think about this.

“What made you ask me to stay longer may be addressed in the next seven years. I want you to think about it it…I am not putting pressure on you but asking you to think about it because you must think about it,” Kagame told the delegates. You could have heard a pin drop.

Kagame spoke with a thoughtful and reserved tone, perhaps keen not to offend the feelings of many Rwandans who just do not want to hear him talk about retirement. As he spoke of resolving the issues that led him to accept to stay, many delegates had tears in their eyes. Few people know how hard it was for him to accept to stand again.

I was involved in convincing him to stand again and, therefore, I know how hard this decision was for him. Thus, as he spoke with measured caution, I knew where he was coming from.

Then I began to ask myself: How then can I tell the story of the pressures Kagame confronted when he insisted on stepping down as president in 2017? How do I explain the difficulty we faced trying to dissuade him from that decision? How do I, as an outside-insider in the decision-making process, demonstrate the heaviness of his heart when he finally yielded to pressure to stand again? How can I tell this unbelievable truth in a situation where conclusions based on ignorance and prejudices are more believable than actual facts?

There is a perception across Africa that leaders do not want to leave power. That often, such leaders and their acolytes seek to amend the constitution to remove terms – not for the good of the country but to foster their personal and group interests. A lot of these concerns have a lot of factual validity. Kagame knows this all too well. In fact, one of the factors that had made him resistant to our efforts to convince him to stay was the bad reputation that removal of term limits has in Africa and elsewhere. He did not want to be seen as another power hungry African autocrat.

The ignorance of the factors, combinations and processes that led Kagame to accept to stand again is blinding. The prejudices that inform people’s attitudes towards leaders who change their nations’ constitutions to remain in power are very strong. So many people believe Kagame must have orchestrated and manipulated the entire process from behind the scenes so that he can remain in power. Yet the truth of what actually happened is far removed from this even as it is very hard to believe.

I was a key player in the process that led to Kagame accepting to stand in this election.

Different options

I initially had the idea of working out a formula of how he could retire but still exercise some influence in accordance with the desires and demands of Rwandans. I began discussing with him how this can be done and he was happy. In many of these meetings over lunch or dinner, the First Lady, Jeannette Kagame, would be there.

I kept discussing different options back and forth with major RPF players and politicians from other major parties in Rwanda. Practically no one – professionals, the business community, church leaders, businesspersons, etc. wanted him to retire.

We sought to find a way on how Kagame can retire but still continue to play some role that was sufficient to give confidence to these different constituencies within Rwanda that felt anxiety about his retirement. One proposal was to follow the example of Julius Nyerere in Tanzania where Kagame would retire as president but remain chairman of RPF, a proposal I knew he favoured.

But to ensure his continued influence, it was suggested that the constitution be amended so that the party that wins a majority in parliament; not the people, elects the president like happens in South Africa. It was conceived that under such an arrangement, if a new president proved difficult, he could be recalled by the party the way the African National Congress had done to Thabo Mbeki.

There had actually been a precedent in 2000 when the RPF planned to recall the first post-genocide president, Pasteur Bizimungu, and he preempted the recall by resigning.

However, there were serious concerns about this proposal. It would set up Kagame at RPF as an alternative center of power and lead the new president to be insecure. This would be destabilising to the country. It was dropped.

Many other political formations were discussed – including what Vladimir Putin had done in Russia. Space does not allow me to go into the details of everything that was discussed. Suffice it to state that after many discussions with many stakeholders, a consensus emerged that Kagame would have to stay on as president.

Kagame was kept out of all these discussions. Besides, he had set up a committee of RPF leaders to explore the issue of his retirement and left it to work. It also came back with a resounding decision: he must stay.

There is not one single human soul on this planet that can claim that Kagame asked them to amend the constitution to remove term limits – not one person in RPF, not one in Rwanda or anywhere else in the world.

From beginning to end, he did not play any role in the process. In fact, the only positive role he played was not to obstruct the process. He had initially tried to do so but he soon realised that there was a huge mass movement and instead decided to completely keep away from the debate.

Initially when pressure for him to stay gained momentum, Kagame called a meeting of RPF. He made it clear that he wanted to retire and gave his reasons. He said he felt RPF has matured to produce a peaceful and sustainable succession.

He also said that removing term limits has a bad image in Africa. He had built political capital that he did not want to be ruined by the perception that he wants to cling to power. He said he has played his role and would like others to pick it from there. He said he was getting tired and wants to retire and spend more time with his family.

Sadly for Kagame, there was not one person among the 3,500 delegates of the RPF who agreed with him. Instead, speaker after speaker took to the floor and gave reasons why they wanted him to stay. Frustrated, he called me from Kampala and gave me an interview to restate his position.

I had talked to many Rwandans who had convinced me that his retirement was forcing a textbook theory on Rwanda’s reality. The irony is that the only people who agreed with Kagame in his desire to retire were his most virulent enemies.

The calls for him to stay were not only from RPF. All the other major parties were saying the same. But most important, ordinary Rwandans were mobilising themselves to force him to stay.

To test the above claim, Kagame decided to go on a tour of the country, holding what Americans call town hall meetings with citizens. He did not know he was opening a Pandora’s Box as he was literally drowned by an avalanche of demands for him to stay.

Citizens at such meetings complained that they had heard that “there is a book written in Kigali” purporting to stop them from voting for him in 2017. Many spoke with emotion and declared they would vote for him whether he was on the ballot or not. People would demand that he promise them that he would stand. Kagame had read the mood but he kept dodging committing himself to standing. I took some journalists from Uganda to attend some of these meetings and they saw what was happening.

Because Kagame was not committing to standing again, people began mobilising signatures to amend the constitution and remove term limits so that he can stand. Initially, some RPF leaders seeing his reluctance tried to follow his cue and demobilise people from the signature movement.

But the pressure could not be stopped. Instead within two months over 3.7 million signatures had been raised. Many other citizens began writing letters to him directly and President’s Office was drowning in tens of thousands of such letters. What could Kagame do?

Family speaks

He called his family – wife and children – and asked them what they thought. They all said he should retire. Kagame takes the concerns of his family on such a matter seriously. He called me to Kigali and shared this development with me in confidence. I knew this was a major issue for him. He was now torn between the people’s wish and the wish of his family.

I discussed this with the First Lady and soon she also relented. “Ok, only for three years – up to 2020. Whatever is missing can be fixed within that time,” she said.

It is easy to conclude that all this must have been a carefully orchestrated ploy by Kagame and the RPF to create an appearance of a mass movement to pressure him to stay. But when you have been in the thick and thin of these things, you begin to learn that the reality of politics in a country can sometimes be far removed from the common assumptions and prejudices with which we analyse it.

In the case of Rwanda, hard as it is to believe, Kagame was initially scornful of staying in office, and then he became skeptical, and finally became an overwhelmed yet reluctant party to the efforts to keep him as president. Even the RPF always played second fiddle, most of the times jumping onto the bandwagon when they saw the popular mass movement was far ahead in this effort.

At this point, Kagame could have acted the autocrat he is always accused of being. He could have called RPF leaders and harangued them to leave him alone. He would have gotten his way. But would this have been correct way to handle this matter?

Kagame’s personal opinion is important but he cannot overrule everyone in pursuit of his goal of retirement. He had actually done this before in 1994, with near catastrophic consequences.

When they captured power on July 4th 1994, the RPF unanimously chose him as the president of the country, bypassing its own chairman, Alex Kanyarengwe. Kagame refused. The RPF insisted that it has to be him. There was a stalemate that lasted a week. RPF blinked, Kagame triumphed.

That is how Pasteur Bizimungu became president. But immediately Bizimungu’s name was announced, the other political parties, which were to form a government of national unity under the 1993 Arusha peace accords, rose up in revolt against this decision.

Prime Minister designate, Faustin Twagiramungu, led a delegation of all the other political parties under the Arusha accords to meet Kagame. They protested the nomination of Bizimungu as president by the RPF.

Instead all of them also unanimously said Kagame should be the one to be president. Again, a new stalemate ensued. They blinked and Kagame again triumphed. This explains why they did not have a government from July 4th when RPF captured power to July 19th when the government was sworn in.

However, Bizimungu turned out to be an ill-advised decision and his presidency led to many quarrels and recriminations. The memory of this hanged over Kagame’s conscience as he contemplated his response.

This would have been the second time he would have rejected a national consensus. I reminded him of this issue each time we discussed this matter.

He kept asking for options where change would happen while at the same time there would be the continuity everyone demanded. The thing is that the options were not viable and the whole country was united around his stay.

As the voices calling on Kagame to stay became louder and wider, the First Lady began to soften her stance as well. Kagame had told us in the Presidential Advisory Council (PAC) meeting in April 2013 that he would not stand again.

In April 2015 as pressure in the country was at its peak, he brought back to PAC this issue. PAC is composed of eminent scholars, technocrats and millionaire businesspersons, the vast majority of whom are not Rwandans.

During this meeting, I played devil’s advocate, challenging others by explaining the risks associated with his stay. Only one person in PAC favored his retirement. Everyone else insisted he stays.

What would Kagame do? He did what every good leader in his position would do – bow to the advice of his people, his colleagues and his advisors.

This article was first published in The Independent, a Uganda-based news magazine.

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