Why “The Will of the People” is a Terrible Reason to Stay in Power

An interesting report on Quartz Africa on Paul Kagame’s reasoning to run for a third term as President of Rwanda:

His answer to the pointed question, “Why pursue a third term,” asked on panel by former UK prime minister Tony Blair?


Speaking on stage at the World Economic Forum on Africa, which Rwanda is hosting for the first time, with Blair on one side and investor/philanthropist Howard Buffett on the other, Kagame said in deciding to run for a third seven-year term in 2017 and extend his presidency, he was simply respecting the wishes of the Rwandan people.

“I didn’t ask for this thing,” he said, adding that there had been a very healthy debate within his party and with ordinary citizens about whether he should continue on as president. “I’ve told Rwandans it’s not just not what you think of for yourselves, but what others think of us.” Kagame has been president since 2000.

“I said, maybe you need to take a risk with someone else,” Kagame said, suggesting they pick someone from the ruling party RPF or elsewhere. “But they kept saying no, we want you to stay.”

There are some obvious problems with Kagame’s argumentation, if you look at the reality of Rwanda’s politics. While it is true that there was “a very healthy debate” and a referendum, Rwanda simply has no space for dissenting opinions. Opposition politicians have been murdered, an independent press is nonexistent and dissidents have even been intimidated and attacked abroad. So in the best case, Kagame doesn’t know if his renewed candidature really reflects the will of the people. In the worst case he knows it doesn’t and he has worked to actively suppress this will.

But that is beside the larger point I want to make.

“People” want a lot of things. And in many, if not most cases, politicians should respect these wants and work to fulfill them as best as possible. But the reason we even have politicians in a democracy (and don’t rely purely on direct votes) is that sometimes we want them to do something unpopular.

Accepting refugees is, for example, hugely unpopular in Europe right now, but it still remains the right and sensible thing to do. Not only for moral reasons, but also because there are very good long-term arguments to do so. “The tyranny of the majority” is a real thing and it can be created and misused against the interests of the very people that are part of it.

Kagame has been in power in Rwanda in one form or another since 1994. He is without a doubt an outstanding military commander and politician. But after more than 20 years of almost complete control over the Rwandan state, one of the highest per capita recipients of foreign aid, what does he still have to contribute except for himself?

There is simply little reason to assume that he will be able to realize any of his remaining political priorities if he hasn’t done so already over the last two decades. But that isn’t even the argument of his supporters. They say that Kagame himself is essential to the success of the Rwandan project:

“If I didn’t think president Kagame was going to be here for another seven years, we wouldn’t even consider doing some of the things we’re trying to do,” Buffett said to audience applause.

The obvious problem: Kagame is human and will inevitably die sooner or later. And more likely than not his mental and physical capacities will significantly deteriorate significantly earlier. That point may still be far into the future, maybe even more than the seven years of Kagame’s third term. But it could also be tomorrow. Or in six months.

If Kagame is the sensible and outstanding politician that his supporters have declared him to be, he would have recognized this. He would have devoted a significant share of his time and effort to establish institutions and mentor individuals that can take over from him. Maybe no single person can replace Kagame, but he had two decades to nurture a system that can.

Of course he didn’t and there is little reason to assume that he will do so over the next seven years. He has said nothing to that end in public and the question of succession hasn’t figured in the “healthy public debate” that precipitated his anointment as Rwanda’s patron saint. Kagame has certainly avoided the more ridiculous aspects of a personality cult à la Gaddafi or Idi Amin. But by clinging to power he makes the same fundamental mistake of equating his own continued leadership with the welfare of his nation.

This is of course not only a Rwandan, nor even an exclusively African problem. Angela Merkel is on her way to a fourth four year term in Germany. Russia’s Putin has proven to be a real innovator when it comes to working the system to stay in power (also citing popular demand, by the way). And one or two term limits are no guarantee for the good stewardship of a country, either.

But specifically in the case of Rwanda, Kagame’s renewed candidature is the tacit acknowledgment that he has failed at creating the stable and tolerant post-genocide society that the Rwandan government claims exist. By his own and other people’s admission, Kagame remains the lynchpin of the state. Statements like that of Warren Buffet above show that neither the Rwandan elite, nor their foreign partners have any confidence in the durability of his legacy. And until today, nobody has offered a plan to change this deplorable status quo. Least of all Kagame himself.