17/06/2014 08:13 BST | Updated 15/08/2014 06:59 BST

Kagame: Quiet Soldier, Small State, Despotic Ambition

Paul Kagame may be soft-spoken, but the Rwandan president looks determined to seek life-long rule, regardless of who is crushed under the weight of his ambition.

Paul Kagame may be soft-spoken, but the Rwandan president looks determined to seek life-long rule, regardless of who is crushed under the weight of his ambition.

Dubbed the "quiet soldier", Kagame brought an end to genocide in his country after his Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) invaded in 1994 and brought stability to a country ravaged by war. As a result, Kagame retains popularity among his people and strong market confidence that is rare in Africa.

A third term or a puppet leader?

Kagame has dominated Rwandan political life for two decades, nominally serving as vice president between 1994 and 2000 under President Pasteur Bizimungu while influencing politics behind the scenes. After three years as acting president following Bizimungu's resignation, he was first elected in 2003.

The former rebel leader presents his government as modern and democratic in order to distance himself from the old generation of African autocrats. The constitution bars Kagame from seeking a third term in office in 2017. But recent reports indicate he is bidding to amend the constitution and remain in office for life, a move that will not surprise his opponents who criticise his autocratic style and human rights abuses.

In recent months, the President's tune has changed on the future of the presidency. At a speech at Tufts University, he refused to rule out another term in office. In response to a student's question on his political role after 2017, he said:

I have been asked when or whether I am going to leave office right from the time when I started. It is as if I am here just to leave. I'm here to do business on behalf of Rwandans... I don't know what else I can give you on that, but let's wait and see what happens as we go. Whatever will happen, we'll have an explanation.

The ruling party has the political and legal means to amend the constitution at will. The RPF controls 41 of 53 directly elected seats in the Chamber of Deputies and Kagame won 93% of the vote in the 2010 presidential election - a level of support normally associated with sham elections conducted in autocracies.

There is no real democratic competition. Even the inoffensive and peaceful Democratic Green Party of Rwanda (DGPR) was barred from registering to compete in elections until last year, three years after its vice-president was beheaded during the 2010 presidential campaign.

There are already suggestions that the RPF is looking to make this scenario a reality. In February, the President reportedly tasked delegates at the party's national executive committee meeting to "find a solution that would ensure change, stability and continuity post-2017." The signs are that the party is more enthusiastic than Kagame at retaining the incumbent, seeing him as a stabilising figure and the commander-in-chief of a party that was formed out of a guerilla army. The leader may also be feigning reluctance to take up a third term so he can disabuse foreign criticism that he seeks to become president-for-life.

International alarm

Changing the constitution would further damage relations with foreign donors, who provide around 40% of the government budget. Kagame could instead seek a puppet president. There is nothing to prevent him from maintaining the leadership of the ruling party should he stand down. This would create the possibility of a "Putin-Medvedev" scenario in which Kagame accepts an inferior de jure position but retains de facto control. However, the international community is likely to see right through such a ploy.

President Kagame's critics contend that the constitutional trappings of democracy have always been just for show. They point to the murder of journalists and defectors and to the ongoing trial of Victoire Ingabire, an opposition leader facing charges that are widely seen as political.

The media remains tightly under the control of the state and independent-minded journalists have faced harassment, arrest and assassination or they have fled into exile - even in political asylum, they risk being killed by Kagame's henchmen.

The President also has plenty of skeletons in his closet from the civil war. He faces a Spanish court indictment for crimes against humanity and terrorism for actions he allegedly committed during the 1990s.

More recently, the murder of former intelligence chief turned dissident, Patrick Karegeya, in South Africa in January had a chilling effect on relations with Pretoria. A third assassination attempt on Faustin Kayumba Nyamwasa, a former Rwandan general who turned against Kagame, at his home in Johannesburg in March led to a collapse in diplomatic relations between the two states. The Rwandan intelligence service's alleged killing campaign prompted the Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee in the US to call on Secretary of State John Kerry "to closely re-evaluate US engagements with Rwanda and take into account these troubling actions when considering future' assistance."

Donors pull the strings for now

The assassinations follow a damaging spat with donors in 2012 and 2013 caused by evidence that Kigali was supporting the vicious M23 rebels in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Rwanda later cut its support to the group, but only after providing months of aid.

The Rwandan government may believe it no longer needs aid. Growth rates have been robust. According to the World Bank, "between 2001 and 2012, real GDP growth averaged 8.1% per annum. The poverty rate dropped from 59% in 2001 to 45% in 2011 while inequality reduced from 0.52 in 2005 to 0.49 in 2011." Although this growth is from a very low base with GDP per capita at only around US$650, it has inspired confidence in some quarters that the country has the space to reduce foreign aid dependence. A working paper on Rwanda produced for the IMF found that "with some commercial borrowing and a modest tax adjustment, the authorities may be able to retain their high investment spending while still reducing their reliance on foreign aid."

It may be too soon to ignore the views of bilateral and multilateral donors. The reduction and suspension of some aid in relation to Rwanda's military involvement in DRC, in combination with poorer agricultural performance, led to real GDP growth of 4.6% in 2013 from 7.3% in 2012 and created uncertainty in public finances.

Nevertheless, donor unease is more likely to be inflamed by the Rwandan government's aggression abroad than at home. If Kagame can restrain his control freakery to Rwanda's borders, the international community may overlook his domestic excesses. But with the tide of opinion in Africa and the West turning against him, it is a big risk. Losing foreign backers would be highly destabilising.

Rwanda has come far and could go much further, towards a point where fear and a police state is not necessary to quell unrest and economic success does not require a constant stream of donor funding. Kagame's success will depend on a lasting legacy of peace, democracy and material well-being of all civilians. It will depend on him leaving the stage with dignity and not in the manner of the tediously long authoritarianism of Hastings Banda or the ousting of Mobutu Sese Seko, whose fates and reputation Kagame will not wish to follow.