Is It Not Democracy If Voters in Rwanda Want a ‘Life President'?

Rwandan President Paul Kagame at the World Economic Forum on Africa 2009 in Cape Town, South Africa

Rwandan President Paul Kagame at the World Economic Forum on Africa 2009 in Cape Town, South Africa. Photo released under Creative Commons by the World Economic Forum.

98% of Rwandans voted on December 18 to change their constitution to allow President Paul Kagama to run for a third term in 2017. Technically, the changes allow Kagame to stay in power until 2034. The constitution allows him to run for an additional seven-year term and then two-five year terms.

The referendum has been criticized by the opposition and human rights activists as well as international development partners such as the United States and the European Union.

There is an ongoing debate in many African countries about the third-term phenomenon, which has led to civil unrest and deaths in countries such as Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Burkina Faso. The Economic Community Of West African States (ECOWAS) meeting in May 2015 in Accra, Ghana, dropped the idea of a two-term limit on the presidency across the region, after The Gambia and Togo, the only member states without term limits, opposed the move.

Research based on surveys in 34 African countries by Afrobarometer, a project that measures public attitudes in Sub Saharan Africa, shows that most Africans support two-term limits on the presidency. There are 18 African countries that do not have presidential term limits.

Rwandan lawmakers said in August 2015 that a nationwide consultation showed that only 10 Rwandans were against the third term idea.

Rwandans and other global netizens following Rwandan politics are sharply divided over the referendum. Kagame supporters argue that a referendum was a democratic process that allowed Rwandan citizens to determine their own future. The opponents, however, claim that the process was rigged and rushed. They also note that Kagame is not the only person with leadership skills in the country.

‘Our choice, our dignity’

Reacting to condemnation from the West, Rwandan human rights lawyer Thierry Gatere said that western governments “rigged” their statements on the referendum. Addressing the criticism that voters were not given enough time to debate, he wrote:

As for the citizenry, the Rwandan people; they have been debating this question for the last four years or more. It is disingenuous, but unsurprising that all communiqués from western powers claimed that the electorate wasn’t given ample time to canvass a question that, by all measures and accounts was belabored, exhausted and ever-greened. I was disappointed to read statements from the United States government and the European Union, both alleging that Rwandans did not have ample time to debate their constitution.

He noted that the referendum was efficiently conducted and in record time:

Results were publicly counted and instantly shared on social media; so much so that we did the tallying ourselves, and called the results before they were officially announced.

This was an efficiently conducted election, zipped through in record time, with preliminary results announced the same night, and ended in celebrations all over the country:

African states are often criticised for rigging elections. However, what is less talked about is that Western statements on Africa, and on Rwanda in particular, are rigged even more

Youth activist Philemon Mbayisha tweeted:

The Rwandan genocide took place in 1994.

Information technology graduate student Alain Murara asked for respect from the US ambassador in Rwanda, Erica Barks-Ruggle, after she shared the White House statement about the referendum:

Twitter user Ali Naka showed that changing presidents does not result into development:

‘It is the Rwandanese people that experience Rwanda everyday’

Some Kagame supporters took issue with media coverage of the referendum. Brain Dogon said:

Rwanda's Minister of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation Louise Mushikiwabo accused the New York Times of arrogance:

Elodie Shami called for a moment of silence for journalists who were waiting for bad news:

Rwandans can decide to change their constitution as they wish, journalist James A. Munyaneza tweeted:

What would have been the reaction of most people voted no?, one user asked:

‘Of course it had to be a yes, Kagame wanted it!’

Not everyone was on board with the results. Public relations professional Geoffrey Maumo wished African leaders learned from Nelson Mandela:

After spending 27 years in jail during South Africa's Apartheid era, Mandela only served for one presidential term.

The account NYC Philosophizer mocked the use of ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ in the Rwandan political context:

Christine Nyabare believed that the outcome of the referendum was a foregone conclusion:

The referendum, according to blogger Dikembe, presented a situation when a solution is itself a problem:

Smith Kennedy, who managed Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights projects for Sub Saharan Africa, explained why he wouldn't be surprised by the outcome:

Finally, Australian voter Alexander Ellerston asked for the secret behind the 98% consensus:


  • Rwabutogo

    Democracy is the power of the people to choose who should lead them. 98,3 of Rwandans decided that the constutution can change to give another chance to HE Paul Kagame. Any comment against the will of Rwanda is against the definition of democracy. People of Rwanda voted and full stop. 98,3 percent are not stupid to decide what is good for them. Only stupid people can critisize the will and the aspirations of an entire country

  • Gluck

    The biggest issue is how Democracy is Defined and the Double standards that come with it. To some people it means political space to do things they want even if it endangers the public. The good example is the American politics where nothing gets done and what’s done get’s undone. politics are so extreme to a point where even good things when done by an opposition are not considered good things anymore. This Makes even a developed country suffer. Imagine what it could do to a fragile and developing country. So some, democracy is defined by the changing of terms regardless of efficiency and what works for the people at heart. EX. Tanzania, Zambia..and many more…to some, Democracy means Security, Peace and food security and development. To some it’s kingdoms and they are not condemned. So what is Democracy? Who decides or define Democracy?

  • Frank

    @Alexander Ellerson: Rwandans tasted a bitter outcome of polarised politics that characterised Rwanda 1959-1994. They and the entire world know what was the outcome. It is not surprising that Rwandans are determined to try a different approach- striving for consensus in all matters of national interest.

  • JohnC

    It isn’t democracy because the vote was rigged.

  • johnabbe

    This is tangential, but I tried to submit a different Global Voices article to another website and it was rejected because they questioned whether it is a news site, something about headlines in particular. I was upset because GV is a source of a lot of good news imho. Now I see what they were talking about – this title is extremely misleading! I am ambivalent on term limits for presidents, but Rwandans did not elect Kagame for life (yet at least).

  • Abdoulaye Bah

    It is mostly Westerners, especially Americans who condemn an eventual re-election of Paul Kagame. But they forget that:

    1. When Paul Kagame took power, the country was completely in ruins, after a genocide that claimed the lives of nearly a million people. He managed to make it a respectable nation in the world, which is taken as a model in several areas: promotion of gender parity, mass schooling for children, creating the conditions for attracting investments and for doing business, reduction corruption, etc.

    2. Rwanda has never experienced such a long period without a civil war.

    In the US, there are senators/governors who have been re-elected an incalculable number of times. Vice President Joe Biden was first elected in 1973, when Paul Kagame was just 16. Among the governors, there are some who were elected for a period equivalent to the age of Paul Kagame. There were seven who served for over 50 years, including James John Conyers, Jr. who is serving over 51 years. Kagame is 59. Are they more important for the American democracy than Kagame for the stability and progress of Rwanda?

    For me the only problem would have been if Paul Kagame had built around him a rapacious oligarchy or forced the population to get the increase in his mandates.

    I do not forget I do not forget that he has a very bad reputation with regard to respect for human rights. We must continue to denounce this point. But, without forgetting: “The devil that one knows is far better than the angel you don’t know”

Join the conversation

Authors, please log in »


  • All comments are reviewed by a moderator. Do not submit your comment more than once or it may be identified as spam.
  • Please treat others with respect. Comments containing hate speech, obscenity, and personal attacks will not be approved.