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Rwanda 2017: Seventeen more years for Kagame?

The last few weeks of 2016 saw three major electoral developments in Sub-Saharan Africa.

The first was on December 1, when Gambians ousted 22-year incumbent President Yahya Jammeh at the ballot box. His loss was not as surprising as his rather swift concession to president-elect Adama Barrow. Jammeh had previously vowed to rule for a billion years and said he could only leave office through divine intervention. Jammeh's concession did not last long, however, as he recanted days later, disbanded the sitting Independent Electoral Commission and called for new elections.

The second major electoral development at the end of 2016 occurred in Ghana, which on December 7 saw millions of Ghanaians peacefully turn out to vote in their country's seventh general elections since the restoration of democracy in 1992. Unlike The Gambia's Jammeh, incumbent President John Mahama respected the democratic process by conceding the election to his main challenger, Nana Akufo-Addo, and immediately began the process of transferring power to the new president-elect. Since his loss, President Mahama joined with several other West African heads of state to urge Jammeh to honor the will of Gambian voters by stepping down at the end of his term on January 19.

The third significant electoral development on the sub-continent at the end of 2016 occurred in Rwanda, where the government confirmed the timeline for the 2017 presidential election with Election Day scheduled for August 4. Barring a political earthquake, incumbent President Paul Kagame will return for a third seven-year term. Like most Rwandan affairs of state, the country's electoral process is expected to be orderly and receive praise for its efficient administration. The neatness of electoral administration, however, should not blunt the impact a closed political space has on the electoral process.

President Kagame's government has a long record of actively stifling dissenting voices and competing ideas in the political space. Both the government and Kagame supporters view criticism of the President as unpatriotic and against Rwanda's democratic development. Popularly elected in 2003 for a seven-year term and re-elected again in 2010, according to the then-new 2003 constitution, President Kagame was eligible to serve two seven-year terms. In late 2015, however, Rwanda's legislature made several changes to the country's constitution that included extending President Kagame's time in office.

The constitutional amendments allow President Kagame stand for a third seven-year term in 2017. The amendments further delay the implementation of a change in presidential term limits to two five-year terms until the winner of the 2017 elections (likely Kagame) finishes his/her term. Furthermore, the amendments effectively allow President is able to run the new additional two five-year terms if he so wishes, meaning that Kagame could be in power until 2034.

The Rwandan opposition quickly challenged this interpretation, but the country's Supreme Court dismissed the case. In his ruling, the Chief Justice suggested that a referendum approving the amendments could definitively settle the matter. Thus, following a mass petition campaign by Kagame supporters encouraging a “yes” vote, Rwandans voted overwhelmingly in favor of the amendments in a nationwide plebiscite in December. By early January 2016, much to the chagrin of Western nations including the U.S., President Kagame had formally announced his intention to contest the presidency in 2017 citing the overwhelming call of Rwandans to continue as president.

President Kagame's case of serving beyond his original constitutional mandate is not unique. His neighbors have also been busy toying with their constitutional and legal processes to preserve their time in office. Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, for instance, went around his term limit via referendum in 2005 and his supporters are now similarly working to overcome the presidential age limit through constitutional amendment. Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza received Supreme Court approval for his third term in 2015. The decision triggered protests which were soon followed by a coup attempt and an ongoing and violent political crisis in the country. Nkurunziza has said he would consider running again in 2020, which would require constitutional amendment.

Meanwhile, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, President Joseph Kabila has overstayed his constitutional mandate which ended on December 19. Kabila and his supporters argue that he should remain in power until long delayed elections are held. Kabila's extended stay in office without a date certain for his departure has fueled violent street protests. Recent efforts by the Catholic Church, however, to mediate a deal between the presidential majority, President Joseph Kabila's political alliance, and the opposition could see him exit office some time in 2017.

President Kagame champions his country’s great socio-economic progress since the 1994 genocide that devastated the country. There is growing consensus, however, that these achievements have come without democratic consultation and often with quiet repression of dissenting voices. Between now and June 14, the candidate registration deadline, it will be very interesting to see how many challengers come forward to face President Kagame and his Rwandan Patriotic Front party at the 2017 polls.

With political rivalry suppressed under the guise of unity and national reconciliation, and the route duly approved for his continued stay in office, Rwanda’s 2017 presidential election may prove to be Paul Kagame’s last significant political challenge until 2034 when he will be 77 years old.