RPF ponders succession plan should Kagame quit after new term

Saturday July 29 2017

President Paul Kagame's supporters during a campaign rally. PHOTO | URUGWIRO

By The EastAfrican

It was supposed to be a moment of jubilation on the afternoon of June 17, but President Paul Kagame was pensive and measured in his speech as he accepted his nomination as the Rwanda Patriotic Front’s flagbearer in the August 4 polls.

As party delegates jubilated over their success in getting him to stand, Kagame instead sent vibes about his intentions to retire after the latest stub at the presidency, asking his party and Rwandans in general to think about a transition.

“I hope that the next seven years will be used to address the issues that made you ask me to stand another time. It is something you must think about,” he told an audience that besides delegates from his party also included members from eight opposition parties that had backed a referendum to lift term limits in 2015.

READ: RPF to keep an open book as Kagame goes for ‘last term’

Though likely to be viewed by outsiders as stage managed, sources familiar with efforts to get Kagame to shed his reputation as a progressive African leader in favour of another run at the presidency say it was one of the most difficult personal decisions of his career.

Kagame hinted at this in his acceptance speech when he said he was finally swayed by the realisation that the people in favour of his standing again, and had a better understanding of Rwanda’s circumstances than those that were opposed to a third stab at Rwanda’s presidency.


“The pressure not to run was less informed and meaningless than the pressure for me to accept,” he said.


Rwanda's President Paul Kagame during the ruling RPF Congress on June 17, 2017. PHOTO | URUGWIRO

Dangers of a vacuum

According to people familiar with the inner workings of the RPF, Kagame was so bent on retiring at the end of his constitutional two-term limit that there were fears that he would decline even after the referendum on term limits was passed. Ironically, the referendum was collectively endorsed by the major opposition parties and they toured the country to drum up support.

Even with this, the RPF’s top dogs were worried that he would decline.

“They could not be sure, so they went ahead and drafted fallback positions just in case he said no,” says one source.

According to the source, the RPF —arguably the richest and most organised political party in East Africa — is aware that Kagame is human and they appreciate the dangers of a vacuum for both the country and the party. “So they have a succession plan A, B and C,” said the source.

To avoid internal friction however, the plan is double-blinded.

“Both the potential successors don’t know that they are candidates and even Kagame doesn’t know who is next in line,” the source added.

Difficulty separating Kagame and State

If he is determined to step aside at the end of the next term, a major focus for Kagame will likely be to be separate himself from institutional performance. Though Rwanda has restored institutions and invested heavily in beefing up its human resource capacity, many people both within and outside Rwanda find it difficult to separate Kagame and the state.

Because he has been a frontline hands-on leader, many observers both within and outside Rwanda believe it is his personal stamp and determination that drives the country. In that case, the only way to give Rwandans confidence in a future without him would be by retreating into the shadows of the state over the next seven years.

President Kagame gets credit for the order and stability in the country. He is credited with the country’s rapid transformation.

Austere and rarely seen laughing or even smiling in public, Kagame has been a tough task master whose result-focused approach has seen Rwanda change from a small impoverished African country to one of hope and sustained economic growth in a relatively short time. The results have also convinced Rwandans that this is perhaps the only way one can bring progress to Africa.

“That is how things work here and we have seen just how far a little discipline can take us” says Grace, a call centre attendant in Kigali. “We have had to give up some personal freedoms but, given what I see every time I cross Rwanda’s borders, it is worth all the sacrifice we have made as Rwandans.”

Leadership demystified

Economic growth has averaged eight per cent over the past decade; the disease burden has drastically reduced and access to health and education have become accessible to most.

More than 90 per cent of the population have access to medical insurance. Primary school enrolment stands at 97 per cent while life expectancy increased from 51 to 65 years between 2000 and 2015.

The country was one of the few to achieve most of its Millennium Development Goals, with the number of people living under extreme poverty reduced by more than half; maternal mortality down by 80 per cent; and infant mortality fell from 107 children out of 1,000 live births in 2000 to 48 in 2012.

Leadership has been demystified. Every year, government officials have to present a report card on their performance and make new commitments at a public forum.


President Paul Kagame gives a speech during an Imihigo ceremony. PHOTO | FILE

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Rwandans: We got his back

Kagame has also effectively used the failure and sometimes complicity of sections of the international community in the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi to convince Rwandans that they are the best guardians of their interests.

This has united the country behind him, allowing him to push through difficult reforms in areas such as land ownership and settlement. Confident that he has the country behind him, Kagame has been able to chart an independent course centred around the country’s interests, national unity and cohesion.

It has made him one of the most formidable leaders on the continent. A Western diplomat said that Rwanda was one of the most difficult postings of his career: The leaders cannot be pushed about, firmly holding their ground whenever their conviction is that they are on the correct course.

The country’s tumultuous relationship with France is one example. After futile attempts at implicating key Rwandan leaders of complicity in the events that triggered the genocide, Kigali has cut diplomatic ties with Paris and issued its own international warrants against 10 French army officers it says were actively involved in the genocide.

Kagame’s single-minded transformation of the country has earned him both praise and criticism. It has also seen him lose friends — a number of whom have fled into exile and turned into some of his most vitriolic critics.

On the campaign trail, his competitors have been stymied by his record. Where Kagame has been invoking what he describes as the “achievements of the Rwandan people,” his opponents have been groping for anchorage.

READ: Rwanda's opposition candidates face empty venues

Praised by the international community for bringing stability and waking Rwanda’s economy after the genocide, Kagame is also criticised by what some see as a heavy handed approach.

Some accuse him of using the country’s past to silence critics, but it is also the memories of this past that led many Rwandans to place their faith in him.