Category Archives: Rwanda

Africa – Presidential term limits and the third term tragedy

Africa is currently in the middle of a third term crisis. As presidents come up against the presidential term-limits included in many multi-party constitutions, a significant number are refusing to leave power gracefully. Instead, a number of leaders have sought to secure a third term. So far, this trend has taken in countries as otherwise diverse as Burkina Faso, Burundi, Namibia, Rwanda, Uganda, and now, it seems, the Democratic Republic of Congo.

In most cases, they have tried to do so through official channels, in other words by changing the law or appealing to the judiciary, rather than simply suspending the constitution and ruling by fiat. One reason for this is that there is strong domestic and international support for presidential term limits. Afrobarometer data suggests that typically over two-thirds of Africans support term limits, although there is considerable variation, with a high of 90% in Benin and a low of 44% in Algeria. As a result, leaders feel compelled to tread carefully, and to legitimise their strategies by pursuing them through formal channels.

Yet despite this, attempts to secure a third term have often triggered political unrest and in some cases widespread civil conflict. In both Burkina Faso and Burundi, efforts by unpopular presidents to stay in power come what may triggered mass protests and ultimately (very different forms of) military intervention. At the time of going to press, a further crisis appears to be brewing in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where the President, Joseph Kabila, looks set to pursue an unconstitutional third term in office. On Thursday 5 May, the former Governor of Katanga, Moise Katumbi, announced that he would be contesting the presidency as the candidate of the three main opposition parties. Just hours later he tweeted that the president – his former ally – had sent the police force to surround his house and that he had appealed to the United Nations mission in the country to protect him. Unconfirmed local reports later suggested that it was only the intervention of UN soldiers that prevented Katumbi’s detention.

If so, the DRC has had a lucky escape. Opposition supporters have already been involved in violent clashes with the security forces in protest against the prospect of a prolonged Kabila presidency. The arrest of Katumbi would raise the political temperature yet further, increasing the prospects for conflict in the coming months. As allegations and rumours circulate unhindered, the threat of a broader political rupture becomes ever more likely.

The growing number of third term tragedies on the continent raises three important questions. First, when do presidents seek a third term and when do they not? Second, when are they successful? Third, when are a president’s attempts to serve a third term most likely to result in political conflict?

Should I stay or should I go

Despite the recent headlines it is important to remember that considerably more presidents have respected term limits than have broken them. For every Uganda there is a Zambia, for every Burundi there is a South Africa, for every Rwanda there is a Kenya. There are a number of factors that appear to encourage presidents to seek third terms. First, the quality of democracy matters. Presidents in less democratic states who face weaker institutional checks and balances are more likely to try and break – or at least change – the rules. Good recent examples include Congo-Brazzaville and Djibouti.

Second, it is more feasible for presidents who govern countries that are more politically and economically independent from western influence to ignore international protests. As a result, leaders who enjoy greater international leverage because their countries feature valuable natural resources or are of considerable geo-strategic importance, try to secure a third term much more frequently than those that are much more dependent on Western trade. This is one of the reasons that President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, a country that recently found large oil reserves and is a key ally of United States in the war-on-terror, is able to stay in power indefinitely.

Third, presidents who enjoy greater political control are more likely to judge that it is possible to secure a third term, and hence more likely to risk pursuing one. Political control comes through two main routes: the ruling party and the security forces. Presidents are far more likely to try and secure third terms in dominant-party states in which the ruling party secures over 60% of seats in the legislature, such as Namibia and Rwanda, and when they have tight control over the army and police, as in Djibouti and Uganda. Under these conditions, it is often possible to both change the constitution through the legislature and silence any opposition to this strategy.

You can’t always get what you want

Of course, presidents do not always get it right and a number of third term bids have been unsuccessful. In countries such as Nigeria and Zambia, presidents failed in part because they could not take their own parties with them. As a result, they struggled to pass the necessary legislation, and, facing strong opposition from civil society groups and other parties, abandoned their plans. Rather than undermining democracy, this process can actually give it a short in the arm, and deter future presidents from pursuing similar strategies.

However, unsuccessful attempts to stay in power can also have far more problematic consequences. In Burkina Faso and Burundi, leaders overestimated their political control and underestimated the strength of opposition. As a result, they struggled to push through their third term ambitions. In Burundi, for example, President Nkurunziza lost a critical vote in the legislature to change the law, which forced him to put pressure on the judiciary to interpret the constitution in a way that would allow him to stand again. Although the Supreme Court ultimately ruled in his favour, it was immediately apparent that it only did so as a result of high levels of intimidation, further undermining the president’s credibility. As a result, the verdict did little to dampen opposition protests against his actions.

Limited political control undermined the position of President Nkurudiza in a second way. In the midst of the public protests in May 2015, a group of army officers launched a coup attempt. Although it appears to have been a poorly coordinated effort and was eventually put down, the mutiny demonstrated the lack of unity within the armed forces, and the potential for the president’s limited control over the security forces to contribute to political instability.

The bigger they are the harder they fall

To date, presidential term limits have not tended to be the source of major political conflict when presidents have either a) been willing to give up on their ambitions in the face of widespread opposition (Nigeria, Zambia) or b) have enjoyed the political control needed to be able to force through their will with relatively little resistance (Uganda, Rwanda). The “problem category”, for want of a better term, is those cases in which conditions are not favourable to a third term bid but leaders try and force one through regardless.

In turn, this is most likely to happen in states in which presidents have most to gain from staying in office, and most to lose by giving up power. Good proxies for the benefits of office are the level of corruption and the presence of valuable natural resources, the combination of which can make a leader extremely wealthy. A decent proxy for the costs of leaving power is whether a country has a history of political violence, which tends to decrease the level of trust between rival leaders, and increase the potential that the head of state will be prosecuted for human rights violations when they step down.

This is not great news for the DRC, which is a highly corrupt resource rich state with a history of political conflict. Unless President Kabila bucks the continental pattern, he is unlikely to step down voluntarily. And if he proves to be willing to risk everything to stay in power, sending the police to surround Katumbi’s house is likely to be only the tip of the iceberg.


Rwanda – President Kagame and constitutional reform

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.