Democracy has struggled to take hold in Africa, partly due its lack of economic development amongst other factors. The failure of democracy to spur economic development in Africa has opened a discussion on whether democracy really is a necessary precursor to development or whether states should focus on developing their economy before attempting to democratise. This blog will examine Rwanda’s constitutional amendment to allow President Paul Kagame to stay in power past his term limits and will argue that perhaps this amendment is not as big a blow to democracy in Rwanda as has been suggested, due to Kagame’s commitment to economic development like that of the East Asian developmental states which could create the preconditions for democratisation in the future.
In 2015 Rwanda held a referendum to decide whether President Paul Kagame should be allowed to extend his term in office through a constitutional amendment. The results were 98% in favour, and subsequently the constitution was amended meaning Kagame can remain in power until 2034, providing he wins the elections. In 2017 he ran for his third term and won with 99% of the vote.
This constitutional amendment to allow Kagame to extend his presidential term limit is a feature of democratic backsliding which, despite its name, does not only occur in democracies. Rwanda itself is classified as an electoral autocracy in the v-dem index yet its constitution adhered to many democratic principles even if these were not necessarily true in practice.
Why then is this a problem if Rwanda was an electoral autocracy anyway? Firstly, since the inception of the constitution in 2003, Rwanda had been making steady, albeit extremely slow, progress on v-dem’s various democracy indexes. Since then, there has been a slow decline in the quality of democracy in Rwanda.
This shows a clear disdain for democratisation in favour of continued RPF rule under Kagame. It is not just the decline in quality of democracy following the constitutional amendment which is the problem but also the amendment itself. Presidential term limits are crucial for democratisation as they allow for party alternation due to breaking incumbency advantage, the potential for dominant regimes to fracture, and less support for successors over incumbents. In fact, opposition chances of victory change from 7% to 48% when facing a successor rather than an incumbent. Huntington argues party alternation consolidates democracy by constraining the power of the incumbent government through providing the people with the power to change a government through elections. Term limits therefore curtail executive power. Crucially, Rwanda’s amendment to Kagame’s presidential term limits mean prospects of further democratisation in Rwanda look bleak as the power to change the government is not with the people but with Kagame himself. Removal of term limits combined with manipulation of elections through harassment, make it nearly impossible to remove Kagame from power.
Constitutional amending of presidential term limits therefore constitutes democratic backsliding due to their ability to remove institutional elements aimed at fostering democracy in place of a continued one-party strongman regime and ultimately democratic regression. This sets a precedent that term limits can be avoided constitutionally to maintain power and gives the autocrat institutional legitimacy through formal law. This enables Kagame to use the constitution to legitimise his autocratic rule rather than as an instrument of democratic rule.
In the case of Rwanda, the amendment to term limits has been received negatively. This is mainly due to the history of big man leaders in Africa who exploit their incumbency advantage through neo-patrimonialism in which state resources are used to keep themselves in power at the expense of democratisation and development.
As Rwanda exhibits many of these neo-patrimonial features (amendments to term limits, limited opposition, one party rule, big man leader, party use of state resources) it is concerning that the constitutional amendment has led to some democratic backsliding. There are fears that democratic regression now, will mean that Rwanda follows the trend in Africa of long-term autocratic rulers, rather than future democratisation.
However, I believe this argument is much too simple and does not adequately reflect Rwanda’s state as a developmental type of patrimonialism rather than the more common anti-developmental neo-patrimonialism seen in Africa. Consequently, Rwanda may experience democratisation in the future, with Kagame’s extended term providing for this. So, while the amendment to Kagame’s presidential term limits undoubtedly signals short term democratic backsliding it is less clear whether it will have a negative effect in the long run.
Firstly, it is suggested that backsliding makes it harder to attain democracy in the next period due to the linear trajectory imagined. However, it is also true that backsliding can allow regime stability for further strengthening which may support democracy in the long run. Thus, the context of the regime is important.
Rwanda may benefit from the amendment to Kagame’s term limits in the long run due to the nature of Rwanda’s developmental patrimonial state which is based off the East Asian developmental state model. In the East Asian model, regimes such as Taiwan and South Korea which promoted economic development and economic performance legitimacy over democratic legitimacy eventually democratised due to meeting the social and economic preconditions such as a growing middle class. Democratisation in South Korea and Taiwan has been attributed primarily to the socioeconomic progress that was made alongside their impressive economic growth.
Rwanda has shown a clear preference for economic performance legitimacy and economic development by following in Taiwan’s and South Korea’s footsteps with its developmental patrimonial model. This can be seen in its Vision 2020 goals of becoming a middle-income country by 2035 through its Rwanda Development Board planning and Economic Development and Poverty Reduction Strategies which has resulted in an impressive 7.5% average growth and shows a commitment to socioeconomic progress.
This commitment to a developmental state model is crucial in understanding Rwanda’s choice to amend the term limits constitutionally. Rwanda emulates the East Asian states through its centralization of the control of rents through RPF owned party statals such as Crystal Ventures (formerly Tri-star investments) and Horizon, meaning investment goes to priority areas for economic growth. Clientelist rent seeking is therefore eliminated in this model.
This is also in addition to strong sanctions on corruption, performance based imhigo contracts, and meritocracy-based recruitment and promotion including recruitment of internationals within the public sector. This shows a clear emulation of the East Asian model with the economic development goals and structure of its state guided investment strategy.
What does this mean with regards to democratic backsliding? Firstly, this short-term backsliding triggered by the amendment to the constitution could potentially strengthen the Kagame regime’s economic development and its performance legitimacy. Secondly, Rwanda’s developmental form of patrimonialism more closely follows the East Asian model than it does the African neo-patrimonial clientelist model which could signal future democratisation once Rwanda has fully developed economically.
This is interesting as the amendment to term limits was tailor-made for Kagame as it created ‘new’ 5-year term limits which allow Kagame to run until 2034. This coincides with the Vision 2020 goals of becoming a middle-income country by 2035. Will Rwanda democratise once the goals have been achieved?
I am tempted to believe that they will. However, Kagame has broken these promises before so it’s possible that Rwanda could remain in this liminal stage of development which embraces authoritarianism.
Overall, the constitutional amendment clearly is an episode of democratic backsliding which has negative implications for the short-term future of Rwanda’s democracy. However, Rwanda’s emulation of the East Asian model over the African model questions the assumption that backsliding episodes such as constitutional amendments to term limits will also harm long term democratisation efforts. If Rwanda were typical African neo-patrimonial state, then certainly future democratisation would be hindered. But its commitment to the East Asian developmental patrimonialism could mean strengthening the Kagame regime offers a greater chance to democratise in the future.