When a democratically-elected leader wants to extend his or her stay in power beyond what is constitutionally allowed, there are two options: legitimate and illegitimate. Rwanda and neighboring Burundi are perfect case studies of this difference, since otherwise they have many similarities – small, landlocked, densely populated East African countries with recent histories of large-scale internal violence. But even though the presidents of both countries intend to exceed their term limits, the deft maneuvering of Rwanda’s Paul Kagame makes Burundi’s Pierre Nkurunziza seem even more of a thuggish autocrat.
Kagame has been in power since 2000, and his latest term ends in 2017. But he has deftly managed to keep the door open to him staying in power by legal means — a referendum amending the constitution. The new changes would allow Kagame, 58, to run for another seven-year term followed by two five-year terms, potentially keeping him in office until 2034. And last Friday 98% of Rwanda voters approved the referendum.
This outcome was widely expected, because although Kagame has all but eliminated media freedom in Rwanda, he has earned real popularity with the public. His achievements include entrenching efficiency in public service delivery, eradicating tribalism that led to the infamous genocide of close to 1 million people in 1994, and creating one of the most secure countries in Africa. Additionally, under his leadership, Rwanda’s child mortality rate dropped by 50%, malaria deaths fell considerably, and annual economic growth exceeded 8%. (Although it should be noted that it took a decade of high growth just to catch up to the pre-genocide level.)
However, the U.S. and E.U. have criticized the constitutional amendments as undermining democracy in Rwanda and setting a bad precedent for the rest of Africa. But in his State of the Nation address on Monday, Kagame delivered a rebuttal, saying “It makes no sense to undermine the legitimate and effective governments that are best able to help tackle the serious global challenges facing all of us in different ways, just to score debating points.”
Speaking about a potential backlash from donors over the referendum, Kagame said on Tuesday that his country would not depend on outsider’s decisions. And he dismissed threats from the West, saying “I don’t see anything worse happening to us than we have had already in 1994, and the tears that followed.”
The contrast with Burundi is stark. Nkurunziza — whose own record of achievements in office since 2005 was unremarkable — misinterpreted the constitution by exploiting a questionable legal loophole to force his way into an illegitimate third term in July. (His allies argued that he was previously elected by Parliament and not by the people.) And since April, when he announced his bid for a third term — sparking a failed coup and months of protests — over 220,000 people have fled the country. Hundreds have been killed as his regime and allied militias have cracked down, and there are growing fears that the nation could be headed back to civil war on ethnic lines. International peacekeepers may be sent in soon.
Kagame has not officially announced that he will run for re-election in 2017 but everyone knows what’s going on. His future in power looks comfortably assured, while Nkurunziza’s days could be numbered — with a possible violent end. Other leaders eager to exceed term limits should take heed.