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U.S. ‘disappointed’ by Kagame presidential bid

One of the world’s worst-kept secrets is officially out. Rwandan President Paul Kagame announced on New Year’s Day that he will seek a third term, following a national referendum that amended the constitution’s term limits rules. Equally unsurprising was the response by the United States expressing disappointment in Kagame’s decision.

“With this decision, President Kagame ignores an historic opportunity to reinforce and solidify the democratic institutions the Rwandan people have for more than twenty years labored so hard to establish,” said a statement from U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby. “The United States believes constitutional transitions of power are essential for strong democracies and that efforts by incumbents to change rules to stay in power weaken democratic institutions. We are particularly concerned by changes that favor one individual over the principle of democratic transitions.”

The statement gave no indication that the U.S. would do anything in response to Kagame’s decision. Despite a plea for truly democratic elections, Kagame is a sure winner in the 2017 presidential race. The overwhelming majority of Rwandans voted in favor of amending the constitution – a de facto vote in support of Kagame extending his rule. He responded to the U.S. statement in a series of tweets.

In his announcement to run, Kagame said that he does not think Rwanda needs “an eternal leader.” For years, he played coy when asked about changes to the constitution and running for a third time. More recently, he hinted a run by saying that he would follow the will of the people. By most appearances, Kagame will be able to remain in power without serious incident.

The same has not been the case for neighboring Burundi and Burkina Faso. Leaders in both countries attempted to extend beyond constitutional term limits and remain as heads of the respective countries. Burundi’s President Pierre Nkurunziza fended off a coup attempt and is still dealing with worrisome unrest, but managed to keep his post. However, President Blaise Compaore of Burkina Faso was forced out of office after mass protests followed his announcement to remain in power. In all cases, the U.S. and most other Western countries issued public statements condemning the power grabs, but did little else in response.

The lack of strife in Rwanda is likely the result of a weakened opposition and efforts by Kagame to silence his critics. A new book on Rwanda by Anjan Sundaram describes his attempts to run a journalist training program in the country. It describes the ways in which free speech is controlled, particularly in the Rwandan press. An excerpt published in the Guardian over the weekend describes the ways in which opposition speech were kept at bay during the 2010 presidential election.

The oppression was obvious to those with experience. A Russian UN worker I met three days after he arrived, when I asked what he thought of the country, said at once that it reminded him of the Soviet Union. He had noticed the tone of the newspapers. Another woman I met had grown up in Yugoslavia, under the dictator Tito, and just moved here. She had not known about the nature of the government – the international press was so positive. But after meeting some government officials she came home, sat down with her British husband and said to him: “You have to be very careful what you say in this country.” Her husband had been oblivious. She told me it had been the way people spoke, their mannerisms, something about it all; she could sense the repression.

And having grown up in a dictatorship myself, in Dubai, I knew all too well what signs she was referring to; it was sometimes intangible; one felt it, but it caused a kind of terror; one felt weak.

Kagame is again poised to win more than 90 percent of the vote, as he did in 2010, when he stands for election next year. The issue will likely subside from global attention until the campaigns begin in earnest. Then it will be seen if the pleas for free and fair elections will be heeded, or if 2017 will look a lot like what happened in 2010.


About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]