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How Many African Leaders Will Amend Constitutions to Hold On to Power?

02/16/2015 05:03 EST | Updated 04/18/2015 05:59 EDT

Between 2015 and 2017 several African leaders will reach their presidential term limits. But will they peacefully handover or will they grab power by amending constitutions? The October 2014 ouster of the Burkinabé strongman, Blaise Compaoré, after failing to amend the constitution has rightly put a spotlight on other rulers, some of whom harbour ambitions of seeking re-election despite term limits.

In the case of Rwanda's President Paul Kagame whose second and last term ends in 2017, there can no longer be any doubts about his intentions. And his grand strategy for retaining appears quite clever, and indeed most likely to succeed, assuming there are no mishaps or some unforeseen events that might derail his masterplan.

Kagame's grand strategy has four key components: 1) create a "spontaneous mass movement" which demands that, as one-of-a-kind, Kagame cannot abandon a nation in-need; 2) his party and approved opposition robustly campaign for "retain Kagame"; 3) repress and silence genuine opposition; 4) and put more energy into branding Kagame as an accomplished Rwandan and global leader.

Creating a "spontaneous mass movement" demanding that Kagame not step down is the easiest part of the grand strategy. Putting millions on the streets will tap into "Nyumba kumi," a term which literally means 'ten households'. In Rwandan governance system a "community leader" is mandated to represent every ten households, a practice that is the heart and soul of Rwanda as police state. The Kagame government would have you believe that nyumba kumi leaders are trusted and respected leaders nominated by their fellow community members, and that their role is to solve community problems. In reality, nyumba kumi are local tyrants who are both judge and jury. They are even mandated to impose fines on community members "found guilty."

A legally-sanctioned mobilisation machinery, Nyumba kumi is an invaluable tool for political propaganda with an impeccable record of citizen intimidation. This is the principal mechanism that won Kagame presidential elections by 95 percent in 2003 and by 93 percent in 2010. In the forthcoming "change-the-constitution", nyumba kumi will prove a campaigner's dream. With pre-identified informers at household level reporting on the activities of their neighbours, the price for failing to participate in pro-Kagame mammoth demonstrations is unthinkable. It is the case of nowhere to hide.

While thousands if not millions will be matching the streets demanding that Kagame stays, the state apparatus will be executing the other side of his grand strategy -- repression of dissenting voices. This is how the 2013 U.S. State Department's Human Rights Report describes Rwanda: "The most important human rights problems in the country remained the government's targeting of political opponents and human rights advocates for harassment, arrest, and abuse; disregard for the rule of law among security forces/and the judiciary... Other major human rights problems included arbitrary or unlawful killings both inside and outside of the country..."

At party level, the retain-Kagame strategy will be mainly executed via the newly-created "Rwanda Elders Advisory Council." The role of this council became evident even before it was formally launched in February 2015. A leading member of this body, Colonel Joseph Karemera who is a former cabinet minister and senator, recently called for the scrapping of presidential term limits in the following unequivocal terms: "So is it time for H.E Paul Kagame to leave office come 2017? The answer is no. It is important to remember that Rwanda has had unique problems, including decades of misrule, destruction and division that ended in the Genocide against Tutsi. We cannot afford to mess around with achievements we have made under Kagame's leadership. If we have to overcome the threats and vulnerabilities and strongly position our country in the current globalized environment, we need the continued visionary leadership of President Kagame."

From the ranks of "approved opposition," the leader of the Idealist Democratic Party (PDI), Musa Fazil Harelimana, who is Kagame's cabinet for internal security, is also championing constitutional amendment to remove presidential term limits. Harelimana says that "We do not accept the idea of limiting the number of mandates because this is not democracy... Democracy is leaving the choice to the people."

Branding Kagame as an accomplished global leader begins with his achievements at home. And he has impressive statistics to sell his record. Begin with the audacious claim that unemployment rate in Rwanda is 3.4 per cent and that youth unemployment is 0.7 per cent. What Kagame is asking the world to believe, in other words, is that 96.6 per cent of Rwanda's economically-active population of 5.5 million are employed, and that 99.3 per cent of young people aged 15-24 available for and seeking work are employed. These are the type of statistics that Kagame uses to "prove" that he has lifted a million people out of poverty and that he has built "the Singapore of Africa."

More importantly selling the Kagame brand among the global elite is rendered easy by his role in peacekeeping. The international community increasingly looks on Africa to manage its own conflicts. In this thinking, the African Union (AU) should be supported so it can take the lead in continental peacekeeping efforts. Kagame has capitalized on this -- his troops are in demand as peacekeepers. Rwanda's troops are currently estimated at 5,500, deployed with U.N. and AU missions, mainly in Darfur, South Sudan, and the Central African Republic.

Peacekeeping has become a powerful tool for Kagame with which he intimidates the international community. For example, when the 2010 U.N. Mapping Report that accuses Rwandan soldiers of massacring civilians in the Democratic Republic of Congo ( DRC) in the 1990s was published, Kagame threatened to withdraw his peacekeeping soldiers. The U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon interrupted a European trip to visit Rwanda to persuade Kagame not to pull out his troops. The U.N. had to review what Rwanda called "malicious" and "ridiculous" in the Mapping Report, and delayed its publication to give Rwanda more time to comment on its contents.

If the grand strategy leads to the desired goal of retaining power in 2017, Paul Kagame who will be 60, will begin his next double term of 14 years that will end in 2031 at the age of 74. In African politics, he will still be a young man ready for another 14 years, ending in 2045 at the age of 88. The Rwandan ruler could press on -- Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe, who is also the current Chairman of the African Union just turned 91. Former British Prime Minister Harold Wilson's famous phrase "a week is a long time in politics" is the only challenge left. Even in Rwandan politics, a lot can happen in a short space of time of two years.

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