A major overhaul of the 2003 constitution of Rwanda is underway. What are the major proposed changes, and how will they impact President Paul Kagame and the 2017 presidential election?
A constitutional reform commission established by parliament and approved by President Kagame was seated in September 2015 and proceeded to make recommendations for changes to a number of articles, notably those affecting presidential term limits. Signed petitions from Rwandan citizens had been arriving for months at the lower house of the Rwandan legislature, requesting an amendment of article 101 of the constitution that limits presidential terms to two seven-year terms. By mid-August, parliament had reportedly received 3.7 million signatures, an impressive figure for a population of 12 million people and equivalent to 60 percent of registered voters. The expression of popular will, says the government; the result of manipulation and pressure, say its critics. Some skepticism seems warranted in a country with limited political pluralism and where civil liberties declined over the past year due to narrowing space for freedom of expression, according to Freedomhouse which rates Rwanda as “Not Free.”
At the end of October, the lower house adopted a draft amended constitution. Major changes included reducing the duration of presidential terms from 7 to 5 years, applicable after 2017. This means the candidate who wins in 2017 would still serve a “transitional” 7-year term, and then be eligible for two 5-year terms. This transitional period is according to Speaker Donatile Mukabalisa justified by “Rwanda’s unique context as the nation strives to achieve sustainable socio-economic transformation.” After this transitional period, the two-term limit in article 101 would be maintained.
Article 172 in the revised constitution states that “the President of the Republic in office at the time of commencement of this revised Constitution – that is President Paul Kagame in this case — shall continue to serve the term for which he was elected, and the provisions of Article 101 of this revised Constitution shall be applicable after the expiry of a seven-year term.” With these provisions, Kagame could potentially serve 17 years more in power after the end of his current term, till 2034.
The Senate adopted the draft amended constitution on November 17, after making substantive changes to 32 articles and formatting changes to 16 others, without changing articles 101 and 172. With regards to article 172 in particular, the chairperson of the committee on political affairs and good governance hon. Jean Nepomuscene Sindikubwabo stated that “it responded positively to requests of Rwandan citizens especially their wishes that triggered the amendment of the constitution.”
On November 23, the Chamber of Deputies met in plenary to approve the modifications made by the Senate to the draft amended constitution, thus marking the end of the constitutional review process at the level of parliament. Next step will be the organization of a national referendum for which no date has yet been set. The Democratic Green Party, by some accounts Rwanda’s only genuine opposition party and which has no representation in parliament, is the only party to have publicly opposed the elimination of term limits. The party unsuccessfully sought to block the constitutional review process through legal action and has declared its intent to wage a “no-campaign” for the referendum.
Unless Kagame decides he will not stand for reelection next year, the road appears to be paved for not one but three more terms in office for him. Donors have been fairly muted in their response. This is after all donor-darling Rwanda and not Burundi or the DRC. While expressing “grave concern” over the move to amend the constitution to allow Kagame to stand for reelection, the US State Department has refrained from threatening to cut aid, stating cautiously that if Kagame were to stay it could “impact US-Rwanda relations going forward.” The EU has no common position. During a visit in September, EU Commissioner for International Cooperation and Development Neven Mimica lauded the strong development partnership with Rwanda, while stating the EU supports “sovereign decisions taken by sovereign nations” with regards to the content of their constitutions.