Jan. 13, 2016 by Darius
President Paul Kagame of Rwanda rang in the new year by announcing that he would run for a third term as president. A few weeks previously, Kagame had engineered a popular referendum to amend the constitution, abolishing the term limits that had previously formed a legal barrier between him and running again. The referendum supposedly passed with 98% support and, as a result, Kagame, who has been president since 2000 and effective ruler since 1994, will be able to legally remain in office until 2034. At this point, it seems highly unlikely that Kagame will ever leave office voluntarily.
Kagame will likely go down in history as yet another leader who put his lust for personal power ahead of his country and could not or would not leave office. This is really too bad because Kagame would have otherwise gone down in history as a Rwandan national hero. During the 1994 Rwandan genocide, Kagame was the leader of the Rwandan Patriotic Front, or RPF, a Tutsi rebel group. It was the RPF that fought its way into Rwanda from Uganda and finally stopped the slaughter. Since the genocide, Kagame sponsored a generally effective national truth and reconciliation process. Abroad, he boosted Rwanda’s regional power (at the expense of the integrity of the Democratic Republic of Congo and a few million lives, but hey, we’re talking from a Rwandan perspective here). On the economic front, Kagame’s tenure saw many positive reforms and considerable development, turning Rwanda into something of a regional economic powerhouse. Unfortunately, Kagame is hardly the only leader who started his rule as a charismatic national leader and slumped into authoritarian autocracy. Similar cases include Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, and even Hafez al-Assad in Syria, all of whom were popular national heroes at the outset and probably would have preserved that legacy for themselves if they’d had the good grace to leave power voluntarily or die earlier.
There are three ways the rule of a strong, popular leader in a developing country with limited democratic history can end. Ideally, the ruler gives up power peacefully in accordance with the country’s constitution and leaves. Unfortunately, there are relatively few examples of this. Nelson Mandela of South Africa comes to mind. As a consequence, Mandela’s legacy is unparalleled. The second outcome is that the leader does not leave power but dies or is forced out of power before he can become a full-blown autocrat. President Seretse Khama of Botswana is an excellent example: he led Botswana from independence in 1966 to his death from pancreatic cancer in 1980. During those years, Botswana boasted the largest statistical economic growth rate in the world. The second outcome generally preserves a leader’s legacy: today, Khama is a national hero in Botswana.
The third outcome, though, is unfortunately the most common: leaders convince themselves that their country cannot possibly function without them and bend or break the rules to stay in power. Kagame has fallen into this third category. Over decades in power, leadership inevitably declines, corruption grows, and repression becomes commonplace. Moreover, the process of subverting the constitution is itself nothing short of disastrous. The more often a constitution is changed, the less it is respected and the less power it has. Conversely, if leaders feel free to rig popular referendums to change the constitution, their successors will have no compunctions about doing the same. The constitution becomes a worthless piece of paper.
It is not elections that represent the true test of democracy. It is whether or not leaders, especially popular ones, can resist the siren song of power and leave office peacefully and on time. Paul Kagame apparently could not resist this siren song. Democracy in Rwanda may take decades to recover as a result.