On 8 October 2015, Rwanda's Supreme Court ruled that Paul Kagame could run for a third presidential term in 2017, dismissing the opposition Democratic Green Party's lawsuit challenging any amendment to the constitutional two-term limit. Explaining the judgement, Chief Justice Sam Rugege said, "Denying the free will of the people to choose how they are governed is not democratic, rather it is the opposite," referring to the fact that the constitutional change proposed by parliament must now be put to a national referendum.
That the issue even reached the Supreme Court surprised many observers who expected the High Court to do the government's bidding and dismiss the Democratic Green Party's case when it was first brought in September. The High Court ultimately rejected the government's claim that the lawsuit undermined the authority of parliament and sent the case to the Supreme Court.
Kagame has been consistently opaque about whether he intends to run again in 2017, telling journalists that he could be persuaded if the population demands it. Preparations for a referendum, however, have been in full swing for the last five months, beginning in July with a government-orchestrated petition of 3.8 million voters - nearly 70% of those on the electoral roll - calling for the removal of presidential term limits. In interviews, rural Rwandans report that local authorities went house to house cajoling voters to sign the petition, which many did multiple times. For months, public debates have raged over the term limit issue - particularly on Kinyarwanda and English private radio stations and social media - highlighting a broad spectrum of opinion, again contrary to the expectations of many observers who claim that freedom of speech is completely stifled in Rwanda. Since the Supreme Court ruling, parliamentarians have conducted public consultations in preparation for a likely referendum announcement before the Christmas recess. The referendum itself will probably be held in early 2016, allowing Kagame to lead the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front's (RPF) campaign for the 2017 presidential election and the parliamentary vote in 2018.
It seems a fait accompli that the referendum will go ahead, the population will vote in favour of removing term limits and Kagame will run and be re-elected in 2017. Donor concerns about a Kagame third term - expressed openly by the US and behind the scenes by most other donors - have been largely ignored. The government's response to international criticism is that a referendum is a legitimate, democratic mechanism to change the constitution. Ministers contrast the methodical Rwandan process of lifting term limits with recent attempts to do the same in Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo, where presidents in the face of large-scale popular opposition have sought to impose their will, with violent consequences. Rwandan officials also argue that the fact that only two western European and North American countries (the US and France) have presidential term limits shows that they are hardly essential for democratic governance.
While MPs have publicly stuck to the script that if the population votes for constitutional change, nothing should stand in Kagame's way, in interviews some senior officials express reservations about the possibility of a Kagame third term and advocate renewal within the RPF and the government as a whole. They criticise the push for a referendum before a Kagame-appointed committee of three RPF 'sages' - Tito Rutaremara, Joseph Karemera and Antoine Mugesera - has delivered its roadmap for the party leading up to and beyond 2017.
Within the RPF, a former rebel movement riven with rivalries stemming from its formation in exile and experiences of fighting during the 1990-1994 civil war and the 1994 genocide, numerous leaders consider themselves legitimate presidential contenders and are highly critical of the prospect of a Kagame third term. Some officials argue that Kagame has successfully weakened any possible successors through constant cabinet reshuffles and undermining ministers' influence by centralising authority in the Office of the President. He has also stymied any direct ministerial challenges to the prospect of a third term, as witnessed in the sacking of minister of justice, Tharcisse Karugarama, and cabinet affairs minister, Protais Musoni, in 2013. Karugarama was sacked days after giving an interview to Chris McGreal of the Observer in which he criticised Kagame's planned changes to the constitution and repeating such concerns in a cabinet meeting. Musoni was reportedly sacked because of ailing health but some senior figures state that he jeopardised his position by openly supporting Karugarama on the issue of presidential term limits.
At the popular level, the degree of government coercion around the July petition belies the reality that much of the population - including the majority Hutu living under a Tutsi-dominated RPF - begrudgingly accepts a Kagame third term as the price for political stability. In interviews, many rural Hutu express discontent with the 21 years of RPF rule along with relief that the country has not returned to the conflicts of the early 1990s. The rural population tends to associate changes of president historically with outbreaks of mass violence and therefore prefers elite stability and continuity. Many rural Hutu also praise the fact that the substantial socio-economic progress under the RPF has spread across the ethnic divide. While the RPF has never succeeded in building a strong political base among the Hutu majority - a persistent problem for the Tutsi-dominated party born in exile - it has dampened any possible Hutu popular opposition through its highly effective cross-ethnic development policies.
Kagame therefore faces little political threat from everyday Hutu, many of whom would willingly vote for him without coercion. Furthermore, all Hutu opposition political parties have been quashed, as have most dissenting voices in Rwandan civil society. The only genuine threats to Kagame's leadership come from within the RPF. Thus far, he has dealt with these swiftly and effectively. However, there are signs of growing discontent within the party, which could widen long-standing RPF divisions, lead to in-fighting and undermine many of the immense gains Rwanda has made since the genocide.
An edited version of this piece appeared in The Africa Report