Ahead of vote on term limits, Rwandans worry about presidential power grab

An amended constitution could allow President Paul Kagame an additional 17 years in office; not everyone is cheering

Under Paul Kagame's leadership, Rwanda has become one of the safest and fastest-growing countries on the continent. But Kagame's iron-first approach has troubled some Rwandans — and a national referendum Friday that could allow him to stay in power until 2034 is stirring fresh concern.
Steven Senne / AP

KIGALI, Rwanda — In her days as an active member of the Rwandan Patriotic Front, Eloise Umutoni did her best to show support for Rwanda’s ruling party and its leader, Paul Kagame.

As a district-level party cadre, Umutoni was responsible for mobilizing youth in line with the RPF’s development agenda, widely considered to be one of the most ambitious on the African continent. By helping lead various government initiatives, from the monthly communal work program, umuganda, to a campaign to eradicate traditional thatched roof houses, she was the face of the RPF for the young people of her village, a cog in a party machinery that penetrates deep into rural Rwandan life. Come local or national elections, she would dress in the RPF’s red, white and baby blue, extolling the party’s role in Rwanda’s progress, and reminding voters what was expected of them.

“I’m the one who told people, ‘You know who to choose,’ ” she said on a recent afternoon. “The RPF is like a family. And everyone understands they’re not supposed to vote against it.”

Yet Umutoni — whose name has been changed to protect her identity — has never quite felt comfortable with her country’s evolution under Kagame, Rwanda’s steely-eyed, rebel leader turned president. On the one hand, under Kagame’s leadership, the country of 12 million has achieved remarkable progress. Since the RPF, originally a rebel movement formed in Uganda by Tutsi exiles, captured power at the end of the country’s 1994 genocide, Rwanda has transformed from a graveyard of a million souls into one of the most orderly and fast-developing nations on the continent. The longer Umutoni worked within the system, however, the more she was disturbed by the government’s methods. There was the constant stifling of opposition; the state’s alleged pursuit of dissidents in exile; the way in which people, knowing that even their neighbors could be spies, would only discuss politics in whispers.

In a national referendum on Friday, voters are likely to approve constitutional amendments that could allow Kagame to remain in office until 2034. In advance of the vote, voices of opposition have been predictably silent. The process of lifting the current term limits, after all, was supposedly initiated by the will of the people. During the first half of 2015, Rwanda’s Parliament says, it received petitions from more than 3.7 million Rwandans — 72 percent of registered voters — requesting a constitutional change that could enable their president to run again after his second term expires in 2017. In a document released before lawmakers approved the constitution’s changes last month, Parliament said it had identified only “about ten” Rwandans nationwide who objected to the amendment.

Interviews with Rwandans of various backgrounds in the capital and countryside suggest a far more divided electorate. Many, citing Rwanda’s stability and record of economic development, say they fear political change and believe the extension of Kagame’s mandate is the best bet for the country’s continued progress. Yet some who dare speak critically admit they’re tired of a system they say tramples individual rights and places too much power in the hands of one individual. Few people here envision that a re-election bid by Kagame could trigger an immediate uprising, as occurred in neighboring Burundi after President Pierre Nkurunziza’s decision this summer to pursue a constitutionally dubious third term. But some worry that the drive to keep Kagame, 58, in office will increase the likelihood of future unrest by emboldening his growing list of enemies.

“Our government wants the world to believe that everyone supports this president,” Umutoni said. “But many people want change. Our country has developed, but Rwandans don’t have peace of mind.”

Our president is a soldier — it even flows in his blood. He treats the whole country as an army barracks.

Robert Mugabe

Rwandan journalist

Kagame, who assumed the presidency in 2000 yet has effectively ruled Rwanda since the end of the genocide, has long been a controversial figure. To his admirers, both inside Rwanda and abroad, he is viewed as his country’s liberator and the architect of its unlikely revival. Today, Rwanda is one of Africa’s cleanest and safest countries. Its capital, Kigali, has transformed from a shattered city into an airy, modern metropolis with an ever-evolving skyline reflecting economic growth that’s averaged 8 percent per year during the last decade. Under Kagame’s watch, Rwanda has introduced free basic education, achieved near universal health insurance, and seen maternal and child mortality fall by more than 50 percent. Although internal whistleblowers have accused authorities of manipulating recent poverty statistics, prior figures suggest that poverty fell by 24 percent during the first decade of Kagame’s presidency. And while historically rooted tensions between the Hutu majority and Tutsi minority have not disappeared, many say that ethnic identity is beginning to lose importance as a generation of Rwandans born after the country’s great cataclysm comes of age.

None of these accomplishments have been the work of Kagame alone. Yet even critics credit his heavy-handed, military-inspired leadership with establishing a foundation of order and security that has underpinned the country’s development. Unlike in neighboring countries, where both major corruption scandals and petty police bribery are a part of daily life, Rwanda’s security forces and bureaucrats are tightly monitored. Each year, cabinet ministers and leaders of Rwanda’s 30 districts are required to sign ambitious performance contracts, known as imihigo, with the president. Those who fail to meet their targets in a range of development indicators can be sacked.

Kagame in 1994 as Rwanda's vice president.
Alexander Joe / AFP / Getty Images

“Our president is a soldier — it even flows in his blood,” said Robert Mugabe, a journalist who fought for the RPF during the civil war and has become one of Kagame’s few outspoken critics within Rwanda. “He treats the whole country as an army barracks. There was a time, after 1994, when we needed that so much.”

From the outset, however, aspects of Kagame’s rule did not sit well with all segments of the population. To start, there is the RPF’s own record during the genocide and its aftermath. Although Kagame’s forces are generally credited with putting a stop to the carnage, U.N. investigations have implicated his troops in the killing of tens of thousands of civilians in Rwanda and in later invasions of the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo. More recently, others have expressed concern regarding what Human Rights Watch has described as a “persistent trend” of “systematic domestic repression.” In recent reports, which authorities have challenged, the organization has detailed the harassment and illegal detention of street vendors, homeless people and other “undesirables,” and the state’s alleged involvement in the disappearances of at least eight individuals believed to be critical of government. Over the past year, many in the country have also been unnerved by the suspicious deaths of two high-profile Rwandans — Kagame’s former cardiologist and an RPF-affiliated business tycoon — as well as the prosecution of the popular gospel singer Kizito Mihigo on what were widely viewed as politically motivated charges. (Kagame, who is known to have little patience for Western human rights critics, told Jeune Afrique editor François Soudan, during interviews compiled into a 2015 book, that Rwanda’s citizens “don’t have the same complaints as outsiders do on their behalf.” Attempts to interview Kagame for this story were unsuccessful, and a government spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.)

At least under the former government, we were free to grow what we wanted. People now are hungry. And we feel lost.

a Rwandan farmer

On a daily level, however, others cite difficulties caused by one of the RPF’s signature top-down policies: a move, undertaken in recent years, to change the country’s language of education and commerce to English from French. Many who were born and educated inside Rwanda, a former Belgian colony, say the change gives a distinct advantage to those — often from families associated with senior members of the RPF — who grew up in Anglophone Uganda.

“If you’re not from [Uganda], it’s very hard to find a good job,” said Umutoni, who survived the genocide as a child, completed her education in French and has struggled to master English while living in Kigali. “I’m a Tutsi, and this government is led by Tutsis, but I feel like I don’t belong.”

It is in rural Rwanda, home to 80 percent of the population, where the state’s influence is felt at the most intimate level. Here, Kagame’s government has subjected residents to what one researcher has described as an elite-driven social “re-engineering,” characterized by an abrupt shift of the agricultural sector away from traditional subsistence farming toward a market-based system intended to spur broader economic growth. At the heart of this is a state-led initiative known as the crop intensification program, launched in 2004, in which households that once grew crops for their own consumption are assigned to produce just one or two specified crops for sale on the market. As part of the program, the government provides farmers with seeds free of charge, gives them fertilizers on credit and helps link them to buyers. It’s all part of an effort, explains Louis Butare, director general of the Rwanda Agricultural Board, to lift the country’s rural inhabitants out of poverty and allow them to earn cash for things like health care, school fees and electrification.

A laborer picks tea leaves in Cyohoha district, Rwanda, March 15, 2014. Some Rwandans say that a government agricultural program to transition people away from subsistence farming has caused hardship.
Phil Moore / AFP / Getty Images

The policy, however, has been contentious. Although Butare says that households are assigned crops through “village discussion,” farmers and independent researchers say the program entails a great deal of coercion. This is in part because local leaders, obliged by performance-based contracts to meet ambitious production targets, face a high degree of accountability upward, but little recourse if they agitate their populations. On paper, in the aggregate, the program’s numbers look impressive. According to World Bank calculations, Rwanda’s agricultural output nearly doubled between 2000 and 2012, with particularly strong gains in CIP priority crops such as maize, wheat and cassava. Nonetheless, as Chris Huggins, a postdoctoral fellow at Ontario’s Wilfrid Laurier University, argues in a 2014 report, farmers’ dependency on one or two crops, and their growing reliance on cash to purchase food, makes them more vulnerable to hunger should their harvests fail or underperform. Several peasant families in Rwanda’s Northern and Eastern provinces — areas where authorities insist the program has been most successful — told Al Jazeera America that hunger had increased since the program’s start. Many admitted to growing rows of beans or other “prohibited” crops clandestinely, despite the risk of fines or jail time. One 40-year-old grandmother, who spoke while hoeing a field in the midday sun, said she usually turns a loss from maize, her assigned crop, but is unable to change course due to the demands of her local leaders.

“At least under the former government, we were free to grow what we wanted,” she said. “People now are hungry. And we feel lost.”

Rwanda is now peaceful. If this president is out of power, we don’t know what will happen.

Gratien Havugimana

a watchman in Kigali

Should Kagame remain in power after 2017, as is widely expected, he will not be the first leader in the region to overstay his term in office. In 2005, an amendment to Uganda’s constitution abolished term limits. Yoweri Museveni, Uganda's president since 1986 and a mentor to Kagame, remains in power today. In Burundi, the decision of Nkurunziza to cling to power, some fear, has left the country inching closer to war. Moves to delay elections or extend presidential mandates have also caused unrest in the DRC and the Republic of Congo. In October, security forces in the Congolese capital Brazzaville shot and killed four protesters prior to a referendum that lifted term limits for President Denis Sassou Nguesso. In Rwanda’s case, the amended constitution would enable Kagame to serve one additional term of seven years and two subsequent terms of five, with future presidents eligible for two five-year terms only.

With Rwandan elections more than a year away and Friday’s referendum yet to validate the amended constitution, Kagame has not confirmed whether he will seek another term. In the past, he has publicly shunned the prospect, telling delegates at a 2013 RPF conference that his inability to groom a successor and create “capacity for a post-me Rwanda” would represent a “personal failure.” Sources close to the party, however, say that Kagame has long had his sights on a continued stay in power and that insiders who’ve voiced opposition to the prospect have been sacked or demoted. Most notable is the former minister of justice, Tharcisse Karugarama, who was abruptly removed from office in 2013 after the Guardian reported he believed it was “essential for Kagame to step down in 2017.” (When asked by Al Jazeera America about the circumstances of his dismissal, Karugarama refused to comment.)

A backer of Rwandan President Paul Kagame shows his support for the ruling RPF party in Kigali during the 2010 elections.
Marc Hofer / AP

The RPF, meanwhile, has endorsed the process of amending the constitution to keep Kagame in office. Its leaders also insist that comparisons to Rwanda’s more volatile neighbors are unfounded. Unlike in Burundi, RPF vice chairman Christophe Bazivamo argues, the extension of Kagame’s mandate would merely reflect the “wishes of the population” — a reference to the 3.7 million signatures delivered last summer to Parliament. Many critics, however, question the credibility of that whole operation. According to Rwandan officials, the petition was a grass-roots undertaking organized by individual citizens, rather than the party or the state. Ladislas Ngendahimana, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Local Government, called it a “spontaneous initiative from the population,” adding that his ministry has “no idea how it happened.” Yet in interviews, several citizens reported feeling pressured to sign by local leaders. One peasant farmer in Rwanda’s Eastern province claimed that local officials assembled all villagers for a meeting, asked them to sign an attendance sheet and later, without their permission, transferred the names to a petition. Although some Rwandans acknowledged that they or others had signed the petition willingly, the sheer number of signatures, argues Jean Claude Ntezimana, secretary-general of the opposition Democratic Green Party, is also skeptical.

“We don’t agree with those numbers,” said Ntezimana, whose party lost a Supreme Court case in October that challenged the legality of the constitutional change process. “Parliament only received a set of envelopes. They didn’t count one, two, three, four … up to 3.7 million.”

Ntezimana’s party, the only registered opposition party that is openly critical of the government, has not had an easy journey since it was established in 2009. Although the DGP, after several years of trying, was finally registered as a political party in 2013, it has struggled financially and its meetings are occasionally disrupted by police and other local officials. Prior to the last presidential elections in 2010, which Kagame won with 93 percent of votes, the DGP’s then vice-chairman, André Kagwa Rwisereka, was found partially beheaded. Last year, its organizing secretary, Jean Damascene Munyeshyaka, disappeared. Both cases, despite police investigations, remain unsolved.

Although he is critical of the RPF’s record on civil liberties, Ntezimana says he still sees Kagame as a stabilizing force and believes Rwanda’s security would best be preserved by his stepping down yet actively advising his successor. Mugabe, the RPF soldier turned journalist, also sees new leadership as the country’s best guarantee of stability. His argument is based in part on Rwanda’s history, which has included multiple violent political upheavals and has yet to produce what he calls a “smooth transition of power.” Should Kagame stay in office, Mugabe fears that rivals “within and without” Rwanda will eventually seek to depose him — a turn of events that could easily plunge the country back into conflict.

Threats to Kagame’s regime could come from current or former members of his inner circle. These include members of the Rwanda National Congress, a diaspora-based opposition group, who have accused Kagame of destroying the “democratic and inclusive” nature of the RPF and say his “arbitrary and repressive rule” has taken the party and country “hostage.” Kayumba Nyamwasa, the former army chief of staff and a powerful RNC figure, has publicly called for Kagame’s ouster and is believed to maintain influence among some members of the Rwandan armed forces. (Nyamwasa has survived multiple assassination attempts from exile in South Africa; his colleague Patrick Karegeya, the former foreign intelligence chief, was strangled to death in 2014.) Although Bazivamo, the RPF vice chairman, insists the party remains united behind the president, recent arrests of several high-ranking military officers suggest intra-RPF disquiet that could emerge more openly in coming years.

“It’s clear there is discontent within the system,” said Filip Reyntjens, a professor of law and politics at the University of Antwerp and author of the 2013 book Political Governance in Post-Genocide Rwanda. “Some people are very unhappy about what’s happening, because that’s not what they fought the ‘liberation war’ for. This is potentially extremely dangerous.”

Whatever the risk of unrest if Kagame stays, however, many in the country say they’d be more worried should he decide to step down. Gratien Havugimana, who works as a watchman in the Kigali neighborhood of Nyamirambo, is one of them. At 57, the father of four has lived through all of Rwanda’s postindependence presidencies. Kagame, he said, has been the best — in part because of his record on development, but mainly due to the stability his rule has brought the country. With the memory of genocide still fresh, he said, he simply wouldn’t trust another leader.

“Rwanda is now peaceful,” said Havugimana, standing in front of the school he guards in a ragged coat and flip-flops. “If this president is out of power, we don’t know what will happen.”

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