Paul Kagame could be president of Rwanda until 2035 – what’s behind his staying power?

• By David Kiwuwa

Rwanda’s ruling party, the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF), recently concluded its 16th congress.

This also marked 35 years of its existence. The centrepiece, however, was the election as chairman, yet again, of the country’s president Paul Kagame. With 99.9% of the votes – 2,099 of the available 2,102 votes – Kagame was re-elected and put on course to run for yet another electoral term in 2024 potentially.

The constitution allows Kagame to seek re-election until 2035. That’s a long way off, and he has not indicated when he would be willing to usher in transitioning from his position. He has acknowledged the need for change as he often implores his party to reflect on change in continuity. At 65, there is no sign that he will exit the stage.

Kagame, the driving force behind the RPF Inkotanyi’s armed wing, took over the party’s chairmanship in 1998. Since then, he has shown himself to be a shrewd political operator, vanquishing political enemies (real and imagined). He has also built a messianic persona and a reputation for being a no-nonsense statesman.

For all these reasons, he has become an international icon who is liked and loathed. In Rwanda, public sentiments are mainly supportive of his legacy.

It is also clear that only Kagame will decide at a time of his choosing when to exit the political stage. As a long-term researcher and author on Rwanda’s political transformation, I believe there are five reasons for this. They include his party’s role in keeping him in power as well as personality traits.

Rwanda Patriotic Front, an economic powerhouse

The dominance and longevity of political parties can sometimes boil down to one simple thing – finances. The Rwanda Patriotic Front has demonstrated plenty and has used it to eclipse all other political actors. It has built an autonomous finance infrastructure buttressed by its deep economic involvement. If real estate were evident, its over $10 million headquarters in the capital is a testament to this financial clout.

The disciplinarian

Many political observers worldwide associate Kagame with a trait that some argue is simple ruthlessness or strict disciplinarianism. Perhaps this is because of his military and, in particular, intelligence background.

In Rwanda, he is known for having little time for government officials’ indiscipline, particularly corruption. Cabinet members have been dismissed if implicated in corruption, and others made to account for lapses in performance. He has a very high work ethic and abhors laxity.

This endears him to even those who disagree with his politics. As such, Rwanda is one of the least corrupt countries and one of the easiest to do business in Sub-Saharan Africa. Efficiency, less red tape and transparency are critical to an enabling environment.

The pragmatist

Longevity in Africa’s executive office requires shrewd pragmatism, and Kagame has proven adept at this. To ensure the dominance of his Rwanda Patriotic Front and himself, he has had to be willing to adopt practical positions that further this interest. For instance, while he has taken a very stern public stance against those who disagree with Rwanda’s actions or politics, he has been careful to mend bridges when it serves his purpose.

The recent release of government critic Paul Rusesabagina after the US designated him as unlawfully detained and imprisoned is a case in point.

Public strategist

For a tiny country of only 13 million people, Rwanda has secured outsize media coverage under Kagame’s leadership. Some would say he has made bold, risky decisions that have set him apart from any domestic pretenders to the throne and international peers.

The country has sponsored some of the world’s most extensive football club sports kits, decorated with the “Visit Rwanda” logo. It has agreed to a humanitarian albeit controversial gesture to host refugees repatriated from Libya and, recently, the UK.

The FIFA World 73rd Congress summit, held for the first time in Africa, has recently concluded in Kigali while the country will host, for an African first, the 2025 World Cycling Road Championship.

The omnipresent force

No one in Rwanda is more omnipresent than Kagame, particularly his Rwanda Patriotic Front party. He has personally dominated and defined the political space of the country since the end of the genocide in 1994.

The Rwanda Patriotic Front, the political wing of the then-rebel force of the Rwanda Patriotic Army, has established a dominant party system in which no other party contender stands a realistic chance of overtaking it. To do this, the party used its parliamentary dominance to pass strict rules that govern political parties. These have seen the disbanding of parties like the Mouvement Démocratique Républicain (MDR) while co-opting others into a coalition. The Rwanda Patriotic Front argues this is the spirit of consensus governance rather than conflictual competition.

The risks of dissension

Political commentators have argued that the risks of criticising Kagame or his government are too high for those involved in politics in the country. According to Human Rights Watch, many critics have ended up in jail, exiled or assassinated.This sends an instead chilling message to anyone who dares challenge the status quo.

For now, Kagame appears to provide a kind of certainty and predictability to the nations’ politics, allowing the country to rebuild on a firm footing. But this doesn’t make him indispensable. As Rwanda distances itself from its traumatic past and gains confidence in its future, it may need or demand a change of guard. – The Conversation

*David Kiwuwa is an Associate Professor of International Studies, University of Nottingham