When The Gambia’s life president, Yahya Jammeh, hosted the Summit meeting of the Assembly of Heads of State and Government of the African Union (AU) in 2006, Uganda’s President, Yoweri Museveni, was absent. He had just controversially begun another five-year term as Uganda’s life President disregarding constitutional term limits. The star turn at the Summit was Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame. At a side meeting organised by the Millennium Campaign, Kagame was characteristically forthright in addressing Africa’s development challenges. Without mentioning his former boss, Museveni, by name, Kagame, who was Uganda’s Director of Military Intelligence before deserting the Uganda Peoples Defence Force to lead the victorious Rwanda Patriotic Force (RPF) to power in 1994, publicly declared that he was certain not to end up like other African Presidents who thought they alone could run their countries. Eight years later, Kagame has become the latest African President to be bitten by the Life Presidency bug.
We may never know what changed his mind or why. However, the decision by Rwanda’s Parliament to change the rules so Kagame can become life President is bad for Rwanda and yet another awful example for a continent all too familiar with sit tight rulers who use the cover of democracy to perpetuate themselves in power.
Since the end of the 1994 genocide Rwanda has steadily evolved into an African poster-child for development. At the helm for 21 years first as Vice President and President of the transition government and then as elected president since 2003, Kagame has seen Rwanda top the charts on economic growth, gender representation in parliament, and as the preferred investment haven, attracting millions of dollars in foreign direct investment. The country and its people have also become a model for dealing with post conflict trauma, raising life expectancy in a generation from 40 to 60 years. It is disappointing that Kagame would risk all this for the conceit that without him Rwanda would cease to exist.
Since ending the genocide in 1994 and becoming Rwanda’s unquestioned ruler, Kagame has also criminalized dissent, equating it with advocacy for genocide. Lucky party or public officers who differ with him have ended up in prison. Many others have turned up murdered mostly in neighboring or foreign countries. Unsurprisingly, therefore, Rwanda’s opposition Democratic Green Party of Rwanda, has been able to muster only a feeble challenge to Kagame’s bid for life presidency. It is evidence that Rwanda is sliding into the pits of a totalitarian state.
Rwanda’s government claims that it has the approval of 3.7 million Rwandese who allegedly signed a petition requesting the removal of term limits but this story suggests working towards a pre-determined answer. As we know too well, the longer rulers stay in power, the harder it is to get rid of them through fair and transparent democratic processes. Rwanda joins a growing list of countries – Burundi, Cameroon, Congo-Brazzaville, DRC, Eritrea, The Gambia, Uganda, Zimbabwe are others – in which long serving rulers seek a return to the imperial life presidency that was believed to have come to an end in Africa at the close of the last century.
Since May, the East Africa Community (EAC) together with the AU and the United Nations have worked closely to contain the problems triggered by the attempt of Burundi’s President Nkurunziza to run for a third term in office despite binding international and constitutional obligations to the contrary. Nkurunziza’s ambition has unleashed growing violence that has displaced over 7% of the electorate and the decision by his neighbor, Rwanda, will only embolden him.
Africa has too many rulers laboring under the erroneous belief that they are messiahs. Regional efforts to regn in life presidency have been subverted by the unmitigated example of Museveni and the undisguised ambitions of Kagame. Sudan’s fugitive President, Al-Bashir, in power since 1989, has just been installed for another five years in office. In neighboring DRC, President Joseph Kabila is driving his atrocity-ravaged country to the edge with his desire to emulate his neighbours and install himself as life President in 2016, despite Presidential term limits. In Congo-Brazzaville, President Sassou Nguesso is about to do the same. Any return to active conflict in these countries will plunge the region back into more generalized atrocities.
Africa has a high number of regimes that claim electoral legitimacy. Yet, The Economist notes, the continent also has a reputation for conducting elections that “do not necessarily produce representative governments”. Every monitoring index on elections, political participation and democracy, from the Mo Ibrahim Index to Freedom House, ranks the continent low. Disrespect for term limits and the brutal intolerance for opposition are only a few of the reasons why.
If the AU is going to live up to its commitment to reject “unconstitutional changes in government” and to promote “free, fair and regular elections” as the only means for acquiring the right to govern in Africa, these developments must engage its attention seriously. Thus far, the AU and other regional institutions show themselves to be compromised by the hubris and bad examples of many of their heads of state. This considerably weakens the AU’s authority with each successive attempt to replicate bad examples that neighbors have successfully gotten away with.
Yet, it is not too late. The AU still has the opportunity to signal strongly that the growing trend in Africa where democracy is used to cloak constitutional heists must end. Kagame has preemptively argued that the world should “leave countries and people to decide their own affairs”. This is self-serving. He accepted international assistance when it suited him. Now the same international community has a duty to speak up and, if necessary, impose stronger measures against rulers like him who play god.
Finally, Africa’s citizens must continue to resist the allure of the indispensable ruler. There’s no such thing. In Malawi, Nigeria, and Senegal, they did and they are better off for it.
Chidi Anslem Odinkalu & Ayisha Osori
*Odinkalu & Osori wrote this prior to Obama’s speech at the African Union where Obama cautioned Africa saying “democratic progress is at risk” referring to leaders who refuse to give up power