Too many African leaders want to spend the rest of their lives as president.
But Rwandan strongman Paul Kagame also wants to make sure that he won’t spend the rest of his life in prison.
That’s why Kagame just pushed through two changes in our country’s constitution: The first allows him to serve three more terms as president. The second exempts him and anyone else who’s served as president from prosecution “for treason or serious and deliberate violation of the Constitution.”
Having ruled Rwanda for 22 years following the country’s 1994 genocide, from 1994 to 2000 as a powerful vice president and minister of defense and since then as an all-powerful president, Kagame has committed enough human rights violations to give him good cause to fear prosecution.
His record includes mysterious disappearances of political opponents, repressive treatment of journalists and extrajudicial pursuit of critics, including disillusioned former aides like me. He is facing a possible indictment by the International Criminal Court for war crimes. In addition, he has been accused by the United Nations of supporting rebel groups in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and more recently in Burundi, where he is recruiting Burundian refugees to join rebel groups with the aim of destabilizing that country, according to reports by the UN and Refugees International.
After serving as a senior aide and economic adviser in Kagame’s office, I resigned after watching him assume increasingly dictatorial powers, abuse his staff and falsify financial statistics.
Now, it’s time for the world community, which provides Rwanda with foreign aid amounting to about half of its annual budget, to see Kagame for what he is: a malevolent thug, not a model technocrat.
That is why, despite saying that Rwanda does not need an “eternal leader,” President Kagame chose to become one. In addition to immunizing himself from prosecution, he has rammed through constitutional changes that will allow him to run for president next year for a seven-year “transitional period” and then seek two more five-year terms, concluding in 2034.
By then, Kagame will be 77 in 2034, young and spry compared with Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, who at 91 years old swears that “only God” can remove him from office. Will Kagame feel the same calling? If what’s past is prologue, undoubtedly.
Approved by 98% of Rwandans in a referendum in December, the constitutional amendments also provide the president with extraordinary powers. Kagame controls the major governmental institutions by appointing and dismissing their leadership as he sees fit. Even senators are either appointed by the president or nominated by executive councils—the members of which Kagame chooses, too. From the legislative, judicial and executive branches of government to state security, no one is safe from Kagame’s dictatorial influence.
Unsurprisingly, there has been universal condemnation of Kagame’s power grab, including criticism from Kagame’s most powerful backers.
The West, led by the United States, the European Union and the United Kingdom, has decried what US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power termed Kagame’s “parliamentary maneuverings.” US State Department spokesman John Kirby said, “With this decision, President Kagame ignores a historic opportunity to reinforce and solidify the democratic institutions the Rwandan people have for more than 20 years labored so hard to establish.”
Meanwhile, media across the globe, including the New York Times, Washington Post and Financial Times, have added to the chorus, rejecting Kagame’s power grab and sharply criticizing him for valuing his self-interests and need for prolonged rule above democracy, the fate of Rwanda and broader regional stability.
What remains to be seen is concrete action from the US and other Western governments. The West, as the powers behind the humanitarian aid flowing to Rwanda each year, should send a strong message to Kagame by cutting off military aid.
It is time to demonstrate to Kagame and his fellow authoritarians that America and its allies do not tolerate iron-fisted rulers who seek to be leaders for life while avoiding accountability for their actions.
David Himbara is a former senior aide and economic adviser to president Paul Kagame of Rwanda.