Rwandan president becomes Africa’s latest to seek extended time in power

Rwandan President Paul Kagame will follow the well-worn path of autocrats by seeking a third term in office next year, after changes to the country’s constitutional limit that had allowed only two terms.

Kagame announced in a televised New Year’s Day address to the nation that he would seek a third presidential term after Rwanda’s parliament (where the main opposition party has no seats) voted in favor of changes to the constitution that could allow him to seek additional terms and stay in power until 2034.

In a nation where dissent is crushed and opposition figures have been jailed, Kagame appears certain to win. Few Rwandans are willing to oppose his third-term bid.

More than 3.7 million people in the nation of 12 million signed a petition calling for the change to the constitution to allow Kagame a third term — equivalent to 60% of voters.

Kagame said Friday he “could only accept” Rwandans’ call for him to lead the country beyond the presidential election in 2017.


“But I don’t think that what we need is an eternal leader,” he said in a televised address.

Kagame, a close U.S. ally, was once seen as part of a new generation of democratic, accountable leaders, who would sweep away the old rule-for-life mentality of Africa’s post-independence “big men.”

Another leader who inspired similar hope was Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni: When he took office in 1986, he said it was ill-advised for leaders to cling to power beyond 15 years. He’s still in power and plans to run in presidential elections this year after three decades in office. In 2014 he said Ugandans refused to let him retire. Uganda amended the constitution to do away with presidential term limits in 2005.

Moves by leaders in Africa and elsewhere to manipulate presidential term limits have been criticized by the West, and human rights advocates, because the move is often accompanied by government crackdowns on opposition parties, the media and other democratic institutions. Both Kagame and Museveni have been accused of stifling dissent.

Kagame has ruled since 2000. He led Rwandan Patriotic Front, a rebel force that took control of the capital, Kigali, during the 1994 genocide and ended the killings.

In September, the U.S. State Department urged Kagame, a close U.S. ally, not to run for office a third time, saying it could lead to uncertainty and instability.

“We do not support those in positions of power changing constitutions solely for their political self-interest,” said State Department spokesman Paul Kirby.

In 2009, as a series of Latin American leaders sidestepped presidential term limits, a political analyst specializing in comparisons between authoritarian and democratic governments, Farid Guliyev, wrote in the Harvard International Review that manipulation of term limits “retards democracy.” He argued it often occurred in countries where presidents used state resources to support a coterie of friends, relatives and political allies, and where the political elite had a vested interest in staying in power so they could continue to benefit financially.

“Since the system is built on personal relations and depends on the ruler, it is in everyone’s interest to support the strongman’s uninterrupted stay in office. Nothing less than the survival of the patronized now depends on the survival of the patron,” Guliyev wrote. “The leader uses his incumbency advantage, most importantly the control of state resources and administrative apparatus, to remove previously adopted limitations on presidential powers. Normally, when the second term starts or some years before the term comes to an end, the incumbent ruler and his innermost circle start to think of ways to avoid a succession crisis that would put the system at risk of collapse.”

Kagame’s move follows a rash of bids by African leaders to manipulate constitutional term limits to cling to power — sometimes with dire results. When longtime Burkina Faso President Blaise Compaore tried to change the constitution to extend his term in power in 2014, mass protests forced him from office. The country saw a short-lived coup this year led by a close Compaore ally.

In Burundi, President Pierre Nkurunziza triggered an attempted coup in May after he insisted on seeking a third term despite widespread opposition. Nkurunziza crushed the attempted coup and won the election, based on a court ruling that his first presidential term didn’t count.

The country has been tilting dangerously toward civil war ever since, with the country increasingly divided on ethnic lines, sparking fears of an ethnic war or even genocide. Nkurunziza warned this week against any efforts by the African Union to send peacekeepers to stabilize the country.

During his July trip to Africa, President Obama urged African Union leaders to ensure presidents on the continent respected constitutional term limits.

“No one should be president for life. I just don’t understand the phenomenon of leaders who refuse to step aside when their terms end. There is still so much I want to get done to keep America moving forward, but the law is the law and no one is above it, not even presidents,” he said in a speech in Ethiopia. “When a leader tries to change the rules in the middle of the game just to stay in office, it risks instability and strife, as we’ve seen in Burundi. And this is often just a first step down a perilous path.”

In Senegal a former president, Abdoulaye Wade, sought a third term in 2012 after a court ruling that his first term didn’t count, but lost the election.

In the Republic of Congo, a referendum abandoning the constitutional limit on presidential terms — rejected by the opposition — has paved the way for President Denis Sassou Nguesso to run for a third term this year, with analysts warning the move could trigger violence.

A briefing note by analysts Global Risk Insights said Nguesso “is part of the larger trend of long-time incumbents trying to extend their rule through constitutional amendments.

“Should Nguesso’s ability to dispense patronage and control the corruption in the oil industry spiral out of hand in his third term with oil revenues drying up — violence, like in other parts of Africa, is sure to follow,” the group warned, adding that the risk to investors in Congo was rising.

Yet another African leader, Democratic Republic of Congo President Joseph Kabila, has been accused of plotting to stay in office, not by changing the constitution but by moves that will likely delay elections due later this year.

In January, Kabila’s supporters tried to force a census before the elections, a process that critics said would have dragged on for years, delaying the vote. For much the same reasons, Kabila was accused by opponents of mounting a “constitutional coup d'état” in November when he announced a national political dialogue on how to finance elections this year, update the voter register and determine the electoral calendar. He also said the nation needed to look at less expensive means of electing leaders.

“For many, this is a signal of Kabila’s intentions to have the president of the country elected indirectly as opposed to the constitutionally mandated direct popular vote,” wrote Kambale Musavuli, spokesman for Friends of the Congo, a Washington-based Congolese advocacy group opposed to Kabila.

Moves by presidents in Central Asia to abandon term limits began in the mid-1990s, a few years after the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union.

Kazakhstan leader Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has been president since 1991 and prime minister since 1984, had his term extended several times through constitutional changes, including one in 2007 that removed all term limits — but only for him and not for any future Kazakh president.

Uzbekistan leader Islam Karimov, also in power since 1991, extended his term in 1996 through a referendum that critics said was flawed, and has run for office several times since. He was reelected in March last year with more than 90% of the vote, after the Central Election Commission ruled his first two presidential terms shouldn’t count.