SINCE RWANDA’S horrific genocide in 1994, the country has made notable strides in restoring stability, improving economic growth and reducing poverty. President Paul Kagame, a former commander of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) rebel forces credited with ending the ethnic genocide, which killed some 800,000 people, has long been praised by the United States, Britain and other donors for turning the country around. Speaking on the country’s high number of women in parliament, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon told Mr. Kagame, “I hope many African nations will emulate what Rwanda is doing. I highly commend you.” Rwanda has in many ways been a development success story. Politically, however, the country is sliding even deeper toward authoritarianism. This is not what other African nations, or any country that calls itself a democracy, should seek to emulate.
Last month, the Rwandan senate, which the RPF dominates, passed a constitutional amendment reducing presidential terms from seven years to five years and specifying that presidents may serve only two terms. The government quickly scheduled a national referendum to allow Mr. Kagame to be the exception to the two-term limit and be eligible to run for a third term. Rwanda’s lawmakers, after conducting national consultations with millions of citizens, claimed they could find only 10 people who opposed constitutional changes allowing Mr. Kagame to stand for reelection. Should Friday’s scheduled referendum pass, Mr. Kagame would be able to run for another seven-year term, as well as two additional five-year terms. Add it all together and Mr. Kagame, 58, could possibly stay in power until 2034.
Government officials in Kigali insist that the road to an extension of Mr. Kagame’s rule has been democratic, through the use of voting and referendums. However, in Mr. Kagame’s Rwanda, political dissent is stifled and critics fear reprisals. Since the RPF came to power, dissidents, journalists and critics of his government have been threatened, attacked and killed, both in Rwanda and in exile in other countries. Early last year, Patrick Karegeya, Mr. Kagame’s former intelligence chief, was found strangled in a hotel room in South Africa. Though Mr. Kagame denied any connection to the killing, he said , “I actually wish Rwanda did it.” On the issue of exiled critics, he said last year, “When you betray the government, you betray the people of Rwanda,” adding that opponents of the government “tend to die.”
Rwanda joins Congo, Congo Republic, Burundi and Uganda in the list of African countries with leaders who look to extend or have extended their stays in power by changing laws or ignoring presidential term limits. In Burundi, the decision by President Pierre Nkurunziza to flout the constitution and run for a third term has resulted in violent political turmoil this year. Fears that President Joseph Kabila will amend the constitution to run for a third term in Congo has sparked deadly protests in that country as well. Uganda, under longtime president Yoweri Museveni, scrapped term limits altogether.
Rwanda has risen from the ashes of its dark past. However, if it is to have any hope of a truly democratic future, Mr. Kagame should do the right thing and decline to run in 2017.
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