Paul Kagame sets pace for 2024 race as ruling party puts house in order
As Rwandan President Paul Kagame prepares to run for the fourth term next year, he faces the daunting task of ensuring his party, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), continues to deliver on its key promises, including maintaining unity and reconciliation as well as accountability to the electorate.
While President Kagame has not given a definite answer as to whether he will run in 2024, he has not ruled it out either, although he has hinted he was considering retirement.
“Why not prepare myself as well (as a candidate)? I think someone needs to prepare himself or herself. If they need my support I will give it to them, but it is not a big challenge for me.
“With time, I’m increasingly prepared to go home and have some rest. About what happens next year, I’m not so much worried. I’m at peace with myself, and with everything that will happen in that regard to next year,” President Kagame told The EastAfrican at a press briefing.
Last year, in response to a question about whether he would be a candidate, he told France24 that he would consider running.
“I would consider running for another 20 years. I have no problem with that. Elections are about people choosing,” President Kagame had said.
So far, the ruling party has been tight-lipped about its plans ahead of 2024.
“RPF will definitely communicate on this (candidate for 2024) when it will be timely,” the secretariat told The EastAfrican.
But well-placed sources within the ruling party say that while a change of guard is expected at RPF’s top leadership, including electing a new secretary-general and commissioners, the party will still endorse President Kagame as its flag bearer in 2024.
Kagame, 65, has been president since 2000.
In 2003, Rwandans changed the constitution giving the president a seven-year tenure renewable once. But another change in 2015 removed the seven-year term, giving the president two five-year terms, starting in 2017, which allowed Kagame to run for his third term.
The referendum to change the constitution in 2015 had more than 90 percent of the vote.
The election of the new leadership of the party is expected during the forthcoming party’s extra-ordinary congress, which will be scheduled after the electoral commission has announced the polls calendar for 2024.
Rwanda under President Kagame has enjoyed relative political stability, which has enabled economic development and improved quality of life for Rwandans.
Kagame has implemented policies that have contributed to significant economic growth. Since 2000, the country’s GDP has grown at an average annual rate of 7.5 percent, and poverty has declined from 56.7 per cent in 2006 to 39.1 per cent in 2020.
But critics and human rights lobbies, like Human Rights Watch, accuse his government of limiting political freedoms and suppressing dissent.
The RPF, which is slightly over 35 years old, is now facing the challenge of maintaining stability and popularity among young voters born after the 1994 Genocide Against the Tutsi.
Government figures show that 65.3 percent of the Rwandan population is under 30, meaning that they were born after the genocide, and over 78 percent of people are between 30 and 40 years old.
A veteran Rwandan politician who didn’t wish to be named to speak freely told The EastAfrican that President Kagame has a clear vision for Rwanda’s future and has been able to articulate it to the people.
“He has focused on economic development, reducing poverty and creating a sense of national unity,” he said, adding that the Rwandan leader has a strategic mindset and has been able to plan and execute long-term projects that have seen the economy grow.
He cited investments in infrastructure and healthcare.
Navigating a transition
But he also had concerns as to whether this progress can be maintained when Kagame finally retires, and whether the party is prepared to navigate a transition.
“There is a strong link between his success as a leader and his personality. President Kagame is known for his personal discipline and work ethic. He expects the same level of discipline from his staff and government officials, which has helped to reduce corruption and improve government efficiency,” said the politician, underscoring the need for the RPF to have a clear transition plan to sustain Kagame gains.
He suggested that the challenge for the president, who is also the chairman of the ruling party, is to put in place structures within RPF that outlive him.
Learning from Tanzania
Smooth political transitions like in Tanzania and South Africa, he noted, were only possible because their popular leaders – Mwalimu Julius Nyerere and Nelson Mandela – had set up structures that enable the party to still hold together when they left.
“It would be a mistake to try and find a replacement like him (President Kagame); every generation needs a leader who can deal with the challenges at hand. Nyerere and Mandela put in place (party) systems that are not perfect but at least protected the country from disintegrating after they left. They built effective party structures that made it impossible for the subsequent leaders to destroy the country. They also empowered the ruling party to deal with dissent,” he said.
Analysts say there are still challenges that Rwanda needs to address to ensure a stable, sustainable and prosperous future, including maintaining unity and reconciliation and addressing existing income inequalities.
Rwanda is heavily dependent on foreign aid, and this has led to concerns about the government’s ability to maintain economic progress if aid levels were to decrease.
For instance, although the government has made efforts to promote national unity and reconciliation, there are still some ethnic tensions as demonstrated by the presence of genocide ideology.
Recently, Jean-Damascène Bizimana, the minister of National Unity and Civic Engagement, told the 18th Annual National Dialogue – locally known as Umushyikirano – that a survey conducted in 2020 indicated that 94.7 per cent of Rwandans believe that unity has been achieved.
Though genocide ideology has decreased by 17.5 percent, it is still prevalent, among the youth.