Should Kagame be given a third term? A constitutional clash in Rwanda

By Anisha Hira:

President Paul Kagame on voting day, August 2010. Photo: Paul Kagame (published under fair use policy for intellectual non-commercial purposes)
President Paul Kagame on voting day, August 2010. Photo: Paul Kagame (published under fair use policy for intellectual non-commercial purposes)

The debate over extending the executive term limit to allow President Paul Kagame to run for a third term in the Republic of Rwanda has been framed as a clash between exemplary leadership and constitutionalism. On the one hand, the Rwandan constitution was carefully constructed in order to rebuild the institutions of the country and, therefore, should not be amended. On the other hand, Kagame has propelled Rwanda forward, both socially and economically – in the 21 years since the genocide Kagame has rebuilt Rwanda’s institutions and developed a sense of national unity.

But a third term for Kagame will not necessarily contradict the constitution. Indeed, the only way that the fundamental goals laid out in the consitution can be achieved is through a third term for Kagame, precisely because he is the only person who can act as the guardian of the Constitution and guarantee national unity.

There are a growing number of African leaders, such as Yoweri Museveni in Uganda and Pierre Nkurunziza in Burundi, who have taken it upon themselves to amend their respective constitutions and thereby remain in power. In contrast, in Rwanda the call for Kagame to remain President has come from the people. On 27 May 2015 a petition calling for a consitutional amendment was presented to Parliament signed by 3.7 million Rwandans, which initiated the procedure to change the constitution specifically to allow Kagame a third term.

Article 101 of the Rwandan constitution explicitly states that the President of the Republic can hold a maximum of two terms lasting seven years each.[1] Reforming Article 101, as the petition requested, would allow Kagame to run for a third term. However, Article 193 poses restrictions on the amendment process because it states:

“…if the constitutional amendment concerns the term of the President of the Republic or the system of democratic government based on political pluralism, or the constitutional regime established by this Constitution especially the republican form of the government or national sovereignty, the amendment must be passed by referendum, after adoption by each Chamber of Parliament.”[2]

The petition has sparked speculation as to how the constitution should be interpreted. Some claim that the provisions in Article 193 include increasing the number of Executive terms as well as the number of years in one particular term. Others, particularly the opposition party the Democratic Green Party, strongly disagree and oppose any changes to the constitution as undemocratic and possibly catastrophic for Rwanda.[3]

On 14 July, the Rwandan Parliament supported a change to the constitution, by a landslide, and launched public consultations with citizens across the country. The purpose of the consultations is to determine whether there is enough support in favour of a third term to carry out a national referendum regarding the constitutional amendment. Like many other African countries, including neighbouring Burundi, Rwanda is facing a referendum of constitutional and national significance that has major political implications.

Yet there are other constitutional arguments for allowing Kagame to serve a third Presidential term. Primarily, Article 98 states that the President is the “guardian of the Constitution and guarantees national unity. He or she guarantees the continuity of the State, the independence and territorial integrity of the country and respect of international treaties and agreements”.[4] By amending Article 101, Kagame would be able to fulfill his responsibilities as a leader under Article 98 to further benefit Rwanda during its early stages of recovery.

After the genocide Rwanda needed severe institutional recovery, which required and still requires the strong leadership and state management that are embodied in Article 98. Furthermore, reports from the public consultations indicate that Rwandan support for the constitutional amendment is conditional upon Kagame remaining President because of his success in providing citizens with welfare and security.[5] Arguably, if the amendment is approved by a national referendum it will be considered an exceptional circumstance exercised for this particular leader at this particular time in Rwanda’s lifetime.

The Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) and many citizens of the country paint their President as a symbol of national unity. This stems from his role in bringing the genocide to an end and his efforts to rebuild the country. The new flag and national anthem, in addition to the constitution, were both instituted under Kagame to prevent the promotion of genocide ideology and eliminate ethnic divisions in the country. Moreover, under Kagame, the government has amended the law on the crime of genocide ideology (Law 84/ 2013) to make it more accessible and transparent, in accordance with recommendations made by the International Service for Human Rights.

This image of Kagame fits well with Article 98 of the constitution, where citizens can trace ideas of national unity and a respect for international organisations. As a leader Kagame embodies the idea of ‘Kwibuka’, which means that the genocide must not be forgotten, so that Rwanda can build a better future that is free from ethnic tensions.

Under his Presidency Rwanda has evolved both socially and economically to maintain “continuity of the State”, “independence” and “integrity”.[6] Rhetoric of good governance and development are often cited in conjunction with Rwanda.[7] In 2014, Rwanda’s real GDP growth rose to 7% from 4.7% in 2013.[8] The notion that underdeveloped countries need to experience technological advancement by adhering to liberal and democratic practices is demonstrated by Rwanda. In keeping with Kagame and the RPF’s manifesto pledges in 2010, ‘infrastructure’ and ‘communication networks’ have developed greatly.[9] For example, the Rwandan Development Board benefited 1500 people through buses that were equipped with computers and the Internet that transported digital services, including E-governance, and imparted ICT skills to rural communities.[10] The level of economic growth and development remains indicative of decisive management and institutional recovery that will further propel Rwanda in the global market.

The international community has lauded Kagame’s regime for its accomplishments. The President’s links with other leaders and organisations across the world have placed Rwanda firmly on the international stage. In 2014, the World Bank named Rwanda as the third easiest and most cost efficient African country in which to invest and carry out business.[11] Furthermore, the World Economic Forum rated Rwanda as the seventh most efficient government in the world due to a “low level of waste in government spending”.[12] Aside from being a model for efficient and effective use of donor aid, Rwanda has become a model for strong and non-corrupt institutions.

These factors ring in stark contrast to Rwanda’s past, and to the rest of the continent. For many post-conflict zones, particularly in Africa, the state has seldom been able to generate substantial economic and political reform. The level of socio-economic growth Rwanda has achieved under Kagame has implications for the future of democracy in the country. For example, a growing economy indicates a larger middle class, and the participation of women in government indicates a fair and equal society. Such attributes bode well for a genuine transition into a liberal democracy, which is deeply rooted in the country’s institutions. But Rwanda has been so successful in its economic and social recovery only because of the autocratic leadership of Kagame.

Presently Rwanda does not have a strong opposition party or another Presidential contender. A change in leadership risks de-stabilising or weakening the state and its progress in the last two decades. Furthermore, the experience on the continent and elsewhere demonstrates that institutions, including the constitution, can easily be manipulated and distorted without stable and decisive leadership, as is the case in Burundi and Uganda. Moreover, a third term does not necessarily represent a breach of democracy or constitutionality. Certain established democratic nations do not have executive term limits and leaders, such as Tony Blair in the UK, or Angela Merkel in Germany, both of whom have served more than two terms in accordance with the wishes of their respective electorates.

Much of what Kagame has accomplished in Rwanda over the past 21 years upholds the fundamental responsibilities bestowed upon the executive by Article 98. There is, however, the question of the President as the “guardian of the constitution”.[13] On the one hand, amending Article 101 contradicts this role; but, on the other hand, Article 193 left the country with the mechanism for such institutional recourse. Moreover, there is no evidence that Kagame initiated the petition – he has been publicly ambivalent about standing for a third term. As the guardian of the Rwandan constitution, he can only allow the national debate to run its course in keeping with the steps outlined by Article 193.

Over the past 21 years, Kagame has proven to be a positive force in re-building and recovering the country. At such an early stage of its recovery, Rwanda needs to sustain this trajectory of growth and through strong leadership. Despite the uncertainty about altering the constitution, the likelihood is that the result of the referendum will permit the constitutional amendment and Kagame will embark upon a third term and continue to lead Rwanda away from the scars of its past. Although removing the restriction on Presidential term limits is seen as undemocratic, the fact is that Rwandan citizens, rather than Kagame, have asked for such a change to be made. Furthermore, post-genocide Rwanda is still in its infancy and the short-term stability and security Kagame has instituted form a firm foundation for democracy to flourish in the long-term.

Anisha Hira is an Undergraduate Student at the Dickson Poon School of Law at King’s College London where she studies Politics, Philosophy and Law. She is currently a Research Intern at the African Leadership Centre at King’s College London.


[1] “The President of the Republic is elected for a term of seven years renewable only once. Under no circumstances shall a person hold the office of President of Republic for more than two terms.” The Constitution of the Republic of Rwanda (O. G N° Special of 4 June 2003).

[2] The Constitution of the Republic of Rwanda (O. G N° Special of 4 June 2003).

[3] White, David. “Third-Term Debate in Rwanda Allows Little Room for Opposition”, Financial Times, 24 April 2015. Accessed 19 July 2015.

[4] The Constitution of the Republic of Rwanda (O. G N° Special of 4 June 2003), Article 98.

[5] “The National Consultation on the Amendment of Article 101”, Rwandan Parliament, 20 July 2015. Accessed 27 July 2015.

[6] The Constitution of the Republic of Rwanda (O. G N° Special of 4 June 2003), Article 98.

[7] Ibid.

[8] The World Bank: Overview of Rwanda.

[9] “3: Economy Development Performance”, Performance Contracts (2010-2017). Accessed 27 July 2015.

[10] The Rwandan Development Board.

[11] The World Bank Group. Doing Business: Measuring Business Regulations.

[12] The World Economic Forum.

[13] The Constitution of the Republic of Rwanda (O. G N° Special of 4 June 2003), Article 98.

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