Should Rwanda’s Paul Kagame have the right to another presidential term?

President Paul Kagame of Rwanda has been a very effective leader for his small Central African nation. First, he led the Rwandan Patriotic Front when it ended the 1994 genocide and brought a measure of stability to a land that had just suffered a terrible holocaust. Then as vice president until 2000, and president since then (being formally elected under the current constitution twice, in 2003 and 2010), he has helped usher in remarkable economic growth and human development. Many Western leaders have personally offered high praise for Kagame—calling him a “visionary” and among “the greatest leaders of our time”—and have marshalled considerable resources to aid in Rwanda’s post-genocide development.

But his leadership has not been without controversy. There have been some excesses and allegations of abuses of political opponents during the Kagame years. And his abuses of power have arguably increased in recent years—suggesting that, whatever his past accomplishments, his real motives for wanting to stay in office may have less to do with a call to service and more with his increasingly autocratic tendencies.

On balance, though, he has been an effective leader who has saved countless lives. Does that legacy justify his seeking what would be a third seven-year term in the nation’s 2017 presidential elections? Rwandan voters choose today whether to approve a constitutional amendment—already passed by the Senate—that would allow President Kagame another stint in power.

Murky waters 

Kagame has been for his nation arguably what Franklin D. Roosevelt was for our own, given the nature of the emergencies facing Rwanda that led to his ascent to power. And we elected FDR four times. To be sure, after the fact, we thought better of it and decided never to allow that again. But we did it. George Washington chose not to run for a third term, but he was blessed with a legion of founding fathers of remarkable ability all around him, and was succeeded by Adams and Jefferson. Lincoln never had the chance to consider a third term—and maybe we would have been better off in the day if he could have served for many years. 

I am not comparing Kagame with Washington, Lincoln and Roosevelt to assert that he belongs in their league. But to dramatize the issue, suppose that he is just as important to his nation as those three gentlemen have been to ours. Would that justify another term? Putting the question this way muddies the waters, but I think it is the only fair way to address the issue. 

More often than not, of course, two terms is more than a given leader deserves. Witness President Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan, or Pierre Nkurunziza in Burundi who just garnered a third term amidst much violence, or Joseph Kabila next door in the Democratic Republic of Congo who is due to step down next year. Indeed, Kabila may or may not do so—and it would be unambiguously bad for his country and American interests if he stayed past that date. All the more reason that, for consistency, we should want Kagame to step down—otherwise leaders like Kabila could use his behavior to excuse and justify their own attempts to hold onto power indefinitely. 

But is it really so simple in his case, and is it really such an easy call? Another tough case is President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, who has brought a degree of peace and development to his nation after the Amin and Obote periods—but who is now in his sixth term. Perhaps once in a blue moon, a nation can benefit from multiple terms in office for a particularly gifted leader at a particularly fraught and important period in a country’s history.

Mr. Kagame: Prove us wrong 

Ultimately, institution building and the establishment of solid democratic procedures are the only sure guarantor of long-term national stability. Kagame is only 58, but he will not live forever. At some point, Rwanda really will need a succession strategy. 

So I hope Kagame chooses not to run again. But if he does run, we need to pressure him to justify it in terms of the legacy he is helping to create so that Rwanda will have future leaders and institutions that can keep the country moving forward.

Ultimately, institution building and the establishment of solid democratic procedures are the only sure guarantor of long-term national stability.

Thus, if Kagame does persuade the public to change the constitution and does win a third elected term, we should cut aid (though not impose stronger measures like trade sanctions) to show our disapproval. That is, we should cut aid unless he uses the third term—which must certainly be his last—to show his countrymen and the world that in fact his rule is about improving his country, not turning it into another fiefdom run by an African strongman. 

For us, taking this approach will necessitate creating a method for evaluating whether Rwanda’s institutions gradually move closer to true democracy in the years ahead so that, whatever might happen with a third term, a fourth term becomes entirely unjustifiable. Presidents for life are bad for their countries while they are alive, and they are dangerous for their countries when they die. Kagame needs to understand this basic fact before he becomes the next world leader who starts out a noble man and then allows power to corrupt him.

More than two decades after the genocide, Rwanda is ready for a more vigorous democratic process—and any responsible leader should be building up the institutions to prepare for that eventuality. Stronger political parties that do not have exclusive ties to just one ethnic group, clear laws constraining and regulating the nature of political competition so that it is inclusive and nonviolent, strong courts—these are the essence of an established democracy, and Rwanda needs them.