KIGALI, Rwanda — The man credited with transforming Rwanda from a nation stricken by genocide to a model of African development once told citizens that he would never “disrespect the constitution” by overstaying his term.
So this fall, President Paul Kagame’s supporters did what they had to in order to keep him in power: They changed the constitution.
Rwanda, which receives $100 million in U.S. aid every year, presents a significant test for President Obama’s push for democracy in Africa. As recently as July, Obama appealed to African leaders to step aside when their mandates expire and break with the continent’s history of strongman leaders.
“Nobody should be president for life,” Obama said in the speech at the African Union headquarters in Ethiopia.
Kagame, 58, is a former military commander who speaks with equal ease at Ivy League business schools and in his country’s poorest villages. He has overseen economic growth of nearly 8 percent per year and has won the friendship of philanthropists such as the singer Bono and former president Bill Clinton. But even as Kagame has garnered accolades, he has cracked down on his political opponents.
Now, with Kagame increasingly likely to remain in office beyond 2017, when his tenure was due to end, Rwanda appears to have joined a slew of African countries whose leaders are getting around term limits.
Within the past few months, the presidents of Burundi, Congo and the Congo Republic have either scrapped their constitutional term limits or indicated their plans to stay in office through what critics call irregularities. Human Rights Watch has dubbed it a time of “constitutional coups.” In countries such as Sudan, Uganda, Cameroon, Zimbabwe and Burkina Faso, leaders have remained in power for decades, often by jailing their opponents or rigging elections.
Kagame’s supporters say Western calls for him to step down are inappropriate and misguided.
“We don’t have the pretentiousness to tell France or the United States who should lead them,” Kagame told the French-language magazine Jeune Afrique in the spring. “The same principle should be applied to us.”
In October, Rwanda’s lower house of parliament decided without a single dissenting vote to change the constitution to allow Kagame to run three more times. The Senate did the same last month . Depending on one’s reading of Rwandan politics, the votes were either a sign of Kagame’s overwhelming support or the fear he has instilled in would-be opponents.
“Pressure from the ruling party and fear of publicly opposing Kagame have doubtlessly shaped the results of this process,” Human Rights Watch said in a recent report.
Many Rwandans say that the country could unravel if Kagame leaves power without a clear successor and that term limits are not as important as national progress. It’s the same rhetoric that other undemocratic regimes have used, but Kagame perhaps has more to show for his tenure than other strongmen on the continent.
The streets of this capital city are spotless. Technology start-ups are springing up in offices across the budding skyline. Tourists are streaming in to see some of the world’s last mountain gorillas, protected by a top-rate environmental agency.
Although it is difficult to gauge Kagame’s popularity, he is no doubt beloved by many here. About 3.7 million people signed a petition asking him to remain in office.
Kagame grew up in exile in Uganda, one of hundreds of thousands of ethnic Tutsis who had faced discrimination in jobs and schooling in their own country, where Hutus are the majority. He joined the Tutsi-dominated Rwandan Patriotic Front, becoming an influential commander in its armed wing. After Rwanda’s 1994 genocide, in which 800,000 people were killed, most of them Tutsi, the rebels swept into the capital.
Kagame went on to become vice president and minister of defense. He won the 2003 presidential election by a landslide and was reelected. His popularity in the West soared. In 2009, former British prime minister Tony Blair said he was a “visionary.” Bill Clinton called him “one of the greatest leaders of our time.”
Still, when the likelihood of Kagame’s third term became apparent in June, the U.S. government issued a statement saying the country would be best served by “strong institutions, not strongmen.”
It wasn’t the first time the United States has criticized Kagame. For years, U.S. officials have objected to his human rights record and his support of Congolese rebels, whom Kagame funded to pursue former Rwandan genocidaires outside the country. In a mostly symbolic move in 2012, the U.S. government cut $200,000 in military funding, citing Rwanda’s support for the guerrillas.
“It has been largely an authoritarian government at the top, with Kagame going after his political enemies and adversaries with a very iron fist,” said Johnnie Carson, a former U.S. assistant secretary of state for African affairs.
In 2010, one of the few opposition leaders, Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza, was arrested on charges of “inciting the masses to revolt against the government.” She was ultimately sentenced to 15 years in prison. Umuhoza had touched on one of the country’s most delicate issues when she suggested that Tutsis ought to be held responsible for killing thousands of Hutus during the 1994 conflict. The genocide is officially described here strictly as the mass killing of Tutsis by Hutus.
Arrests of Kagame’s critics have continued, with the government claiming that it is defending national security.
There is now only one political party that opposes the campaign for a third Kagame term, the Democratic Green Party. The group has a tiny, two-room office in a nondescript building in Kigali, with a cutout of Obama atop a cabinet. The party does not have any representatives in parliament.
“When people are asked if they support Kagame, everyone says, ‘Yes, yes, yes,’ ” said the party’s vice president, Karine Maombi. “It’s a joke. People are afraid to say they disagree.”
For years, the international community has struggled to calibrate its relationship with Rwanda, as the country thrived, making efficient use of foreign aid, even as it was frequently accused of human rights abuses.
Carson kept “analytical score cards.” In economic development, he gave Rwanda a 9 out of 10. But on domestic political issues, he gave the country a 2, in large part because of Kagame’s repression of his opponents.
“I think that Kagame’s decision [to stay in office] represents a serious setback to continued democratic progression,” Carson said.
But Kagame’s supporters say their nation is being unfairly grouped with countries in much different situations. In Burundi, for example, the president’s remaining in power for a third term is strongly opposed by a coalition of politicians and activists. Hundreds have been killed there in protests since April.
“Unlike Burundi and Congo, we’re going through this in a very calm way,” said Jean Philbert Nsengimana, the minister of youth and information and communications technology.
Although opposition candidates have won important, hotly contested elections this year in Nigeria and Tanzania, some of Africa’s most prominent leaders have held power for decades. Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, 91, has been in power for 35 years. Sudan’s Omar Hassan al-Bashir, 71, has been president for 22 years. A $5 million prize given by the Mo Ibrahim Foundation to African leaders who govern well and then leave office at the end of their terms has been awarded only four times since it was announced eight years ago.
Kagame was seen as part of a new generation of African leaders, and Western diplomats hoped he would take term limits more seriously. For a while, it appeared that he would.
He said in 2010 that “it would be my failure” if no one succeeded him at the end of his second term. But now, the parliament has voted to allow him to seek one more seven-year term and two more five-year terms.
The United States is among the few Western countries that have publicly opposed the prospect of a third Kagame term.
“People feel that he should be cut more slack — that Rwanda is kind of a special deal,” said one senior Western official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the situation publicly. “He has at least stopped people from cutting each other’s heads off for 20 years.”