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Kigali court ruling - in the name of the Rwandan people?

Rwanda's Supreme Court has approved a change to the constitution which will allow President Paul Kagame to run for a third term. This does not bode well for democracy in Rwanda, says Dirke Köpp.

Right until the last moment, Rwanda observers had been hoping that, despite all the odds, the judges of the country's Supreme Court would rule in favor of the opposition Green Party which had objected to the bid by President Paul Kagame to amend the constution, thereby enabling him to run for a third term in office.

Kagame has been president since 2000. In 1994, he marched into Kigali with his Tutsi rebels to end the genocide which had cost the lives of more than 800,000 Rwandans. In 2003 und 2010 he was elected for full terms in a regular manner. Under the existing constitution, after two periods of seven years in office, he would not be eligible to run again in the next elections in 2017.

Dirke Köpp

DW's Dirke Köpp

But now, following the Supreme Court ruling, the way is open for him. First, Rwandans will vote on the planned change to the constitution. Thanks to a well organized security apparatus and spy system, it can be expected that few Rwandans will dare not to vote in favor. The risk of being stigmatized or isolated is too high. However Kagame is taking care that the constutitonal amendment should look as if it has the full backing of the population.

Kagame rules with an iron hand, yet he is popular with many Rwandans and with international donors. They see him as a guarantor for peace and stability in the region, as he brought peace after the genocide and revived the economy. But the price is high. The media are gagged, political opposition is almost non-existent. Critics are silenced or forced to go into exile. There have been several attacks against former confidants of Kagame, such as the former intelligence chief Patrick Karegeya who was killed in South Africa in early 2014, or former army chief Kayumba Nyamwasa. The cases were never solved. The judicial system is also under pressure and has little freedom, as the Supreme Court ruling shows. This is not a good record for a country that wishes to present itself as a democracy.

Independent of Kagame, a change to the number of times a president may hold office would have far-reaching consequences. It would be valid not only for him but for every president who follows.

The ruling will elicit great interest in neighboring countries, since there are several presidents in central Africa who would like to stay in power for longer. In Congo, President Denis Sassou Nguesso announced at the start of the week that a referendum would be held on amending the constitution and on ending the limitation of presidential mandates. Joseph Kabila, on the other side of the river, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, also wants to remain president for as long as possible. While in Burundi, President Pierre Nkurunziza has simply ignored the fact that a third period in office is unconstitutional - and for months the country has been sinking into chaos and violence.

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