The Sole Candidate

A Historical Campaign for President Paul Kagame

Photo by Village Urugwiro

President Paul Kagame, who turns sixty on 23 October, will be re-elected for a third seven-year term on 4 August by more than ninety-five percent of six-million-plus Rwandan registered voters. On Friday, 14 July, he began a historic campaign.

When former internal security minister and leader of the Parti Démocratique Idéal (PDI), Sheikh Musa Fazil Harerimana, made public his party’s (if not his own) views of amending the Constitution to allow President Kagame to run for a third term, he put forward a big challenge for Rwandans to think about the future of the nation’s presidency. It was in October 2010 — just a few weeks after he had been sworn in — and the challenge was not taken until three years later, which was well-nigh too late. But this idea of amending the supreme law of the Republic put Rwandan citizens and politicians, especially the leading party, the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF), and President Kagame himself, to test. A test which we all failed. In the eyes of “democracy” activists, twenty-seventeen presented a chance for the leadership to pave way for peaceful transfer of power; which we have missed now.

President Kagame was serious, I believe, when he said that he would consider it a “personal failure” if he does not groom a successor by the end of his second term. And, indeed, he has failed his conviction. At an “extraordinary” convention last month, where close to two thousand RPF delegates approved his candidacy, only himself did not use his vote favourably. Under pressure from his supporters, and his own party, he accepted to fail. He accepted to lose the battle of twenty-seventeen so he can win the ultimate war of succession.

He, therefore, challenged the RPF (or himself?) to start thinking deeply about making his third term his last:

[…] in the seven years to come, it is my request to you that we do things either differently, or better, or work harder so that the next seven years give us some kind of transition, and so that what made you ask me to stay longer maybe can be addressed in these seven years.

If you think about it, whatsoever, President Kagame’s leadership did very little (if not nothing) to prepare us for a life without him in the presidency and offer Rwandans an alternative.

Rwanda has made great strides under President Kagame. You have to be blind not to see and admit it. His leadership has championed security, business and trade, schooling, infrastructure, technology, and justice reform. He is loved, adored, and admired by the majority of Rwandans. But, of course, like any other human being, he is not perfect, nor does he possess super-power. Rwanda remains a poor country and still has a long way to go. There are issues in the sectors of education, health, media, economy, and agriculture. In fact, there are issues everywhere. Planning and management, transparency and service delivery, and local governance are some of the areas which still need more, strong improvement. And, every day, Rwandans from all walks of life are working hard to create solutions. But solutions to most policy issues require maximum attention of politicians at the top. This is mostly due to limitations in both engagement and civic literacy across the populace.

The political sphere, and its streets, in Rwanda, are filled with fanatics. It is hard – in fact very hard – to know who is right or wrong that it almost makes everyone feel right about their stand on issues. Criticism is criticised relentlessly, even when it’s genuine and not (as) harsh. We only embedded critical thinking in our school system recently (the ministry of education rolled our new ‘competence-based’ curriculum early last year), and it will take years to see substantial results. But Rwandans are naturally open and they form opinion on issues that affect their lives on a daily basis – even when they don’t tell you. (For now, look deeply into the comments on social media, or simply follow the conversations in our households.)

In recent years, through speeches and interviews at different occasions, President Kagame has encouraged open debate and dialogue between leaders and citizens, as well as development partners. It will take time for the system to follow his lead, but, nevertheless, outspoken voices of activists and forward-thinking leaders, among others, are fast surfacing. It is healthy, and it puts us on the right path.

As the president tours all districts through this elections season, he is re-energising and mobilising the ‘Rwandan spirit’ he has built essentially since he took office in the year 2000. Slogans of unity, resilience and self-reliance, prosperity, and dignity are at the core.

Beyond this campaign, however, the next seven years will open us to a new era of change and continuity. If the RPF sticks to President Kagame’s promise, this country will see progress in key areas, dealing with economic inequality, media and cultural development, growth in the start-up ecosystem, advancement in innovation and information technology, more decentralised governance, and quality education. Reforms in the first three years, at least, will define a lot in regard to the future of this nation’s leadership. There is, obviously, a lot to come.

Thinking of the candidates this year almost feels boring. Dr Frank Habineza is a start-up independent party leader, who, in the eyes of most observers, clearly remains unsure of where to go; Mr Phillippe Mpayimana, who only set foot in the country less than six months ago, has a mission which the public ignores up to this moment. There is, really, an absence of significant opposition and contention to challenge the incumbent. At this stage, if anything, President Kagame is only running against himself – if not his party.

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