Do scribes hear ‘yes’ when Kagame says ‘no’ or ‘no'?By FREDERICK GOLOOBA-MUTEBI | Tuesday, December 27 2011 at 10:31
As has happened almost wherever he has travelled since his re-election over 15 months ago, when President Paul Kagame visited Uganda recently, journalists were quick to ask him whether he would step down after his current and, according to the national constitution, last term in office. A local daily quoted him saying he would “give the last word on the presidential term limits talk when the time comes.”
It sent tongues wagging wildly among sections of Uganda’s chattering classes as they accused him of waffling on the issue. What the media were reporting, they argued, could mean only one thing: Like their Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni who promised to leave and changed his mind, Kagame too would manipulate public opinion, change the constitution, and stay put.
A friend emailed me from London: “Do you still think your man is going to go after his current term? It seems like he might not go.” My man? Well, for good reasons, I believe, do not fear to say that he will step down. Those who maintain that no African president who promises to retire should be believed until they have actually done so remain firmly convinced that he is going nowhere.
However, in seizing upon his refusal to be pressed on the matter to claim that he is finally beginning to reveal “his real intentions,” Ugandans missed something crucially important.
It is said that you do not fold your fingers when you are in the company of a leper, lest he or she think you’re mocking them. Kagame was the guest of a president who defied popular expectation and changed his country’s constitution in order to avoid stepping down after his second and last elected term in office ended.
It would have been unwise for him to respond to the question in ways that suggested he was criticising presidents who change their countries’ constitutions to avoid stepping down. Who knows what else he would have been asked and where the conversation might have led?
It is on record that President Kagame has on several occasions been categorical about his intention to step down, and his conviction that it will be the right thing to do. He started early. A day after the results of the 2010 presidential elections had been declared showing that he had won, Ugandan journalist, Andrew Mwenda, interviewed him on a Kigali-based private radio station, Contact FM. He said that in principle he was not opposed to term limits being removed from the constitution if Rwandans so wished. However, he added, he would oppose any attempt to amend it for him to stay in power.
By then some Rwandans had started claiming it was too early for him to start talking of leaving when there was no obvious successor. He disagreed, emphasising that if by the time the current term was ending he had not helped set up mechanisms through which he would be succeeded, he would have failed in his duties as president. Such failure, he insisted, would be reason enough for him to be replaced. All this has done nothing to convince the sceptics who persist in refusing to believe him.
Perhaps stung by the noise of his careful comments in Kampala had generated, he revisited the issue a few days later, during Rwanda’s 9th Annual National Dialogue. Addressing hundreds of his compatriots inside the Houses of parliament and millions following via radio, television and social media, he berated journalists for hounding him:
“Every time I meet them they are asking me when I am leaving office. They want me to leave now. But Rwandans have given me a mandate to serve them until 2017. After that I can serve them in a different capacity. I served them before I came to this office and I can still serve them outside this office. When I say yes, they say I said no. When I say no, they say I said yes. They say when I was asked I was vague. I am not vague. I have never been vague. What you see is what you get.” Do his doubters go voluntarily deaf at moments such as these?
Also striking is that non-Rwandans living outside Rwanda are most voluble in their predictions that he will behave like other presidents who have lied to their people.
Ugandans are particularly intriguing in their obsession with his intentions. It is as if they have no issues more immediate to their own personal and collective interests to discuss and debate.
And what do Rwandans think? It is, of course, difficult to speak for millions of them. However, in interactions with a diversity of residents of Kigali, I have discovered a mix of worry about what the future will be like without no-nonsense Kagame to impose discipline, and hope and expectation that not only will he do the right thing, which is to step down, but that he will also help find the right person to replace him.
The view that he does not say one thing and do another is widespread. There are doubters, too, of course, which should surprise no one. The question, though, remains: Will he or will he not? Someone will have the last laugh in 2017.
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