KIGALI, Rwanda (AP) — Rwanda’s president declared he will run for a fourth term next year, saying that “what the West thinks is not my problem,” after the United States and others criticized the earlier lifting of term limits to extend his rule.
President Paul Kagame made the announcement in an interview with the French-language publication Jeune Afrique published Tuesday.
The 65-year-old Kagame has been president since 2000 and was declared the winner of the previous election in 2017 with more than 98% of the vote. He has been the de facto leader since Rwanda’s 1994 genocide.
Next year's election will be the first in which people born during Kagame's presidency and knowing no other leader will be old enough to vote.
Kagame is one of a number of African leaders who have prolonged their rule by pursuing changes to term limits. In 2015, Rwandans in a referendum voted to lift a two-term limit. Kagame could stay in power until 2034 if he wins a five-year term next year and then another.
When asked what he thought the West would think of him running again, he replied, “I’m sorry for the West, but what the West thinks is not my problem.”
Kagame was re-elected as chair of the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front party earlier this year for another five-year term. The U.S.-based watchdog Freedom House described Rwanda as “not free” in its latest report and said the party has been “banning and repressing any opposition group that could mount a serious challenge to its leadership.”
Political analyst Gonzaga Muganwa, a former executive secretary of the Rwanda Journalists Association, said Kagame's control over the party is total and that "all the legal political parties in the country are subservient to his authority.”
Rwandans expect Kagame to be in power “until at least 2034 unless a major upheaval happens,” Muganwa said. "In the leadup to the polls, his biggest challenge is managing the cost-of-living crisis as food inflation is wiping away any rise in incomes" since the COVID-19 pandemic.
Kagame and his government have received praise for stabilizing the country and developing public health and the economy since the genocide in which more than 800,000 people were killed. But human rights groups and other critics have long accused the government of harshly targeting opponents, including with extrajudicial killings even far outside the country’s borders.
The government has rejected such allegations. But earlier this year, under diplomatic pressure, Rwanda released Paul Rusesabagina after tricking the exiled opposition leader onto a plane to the country and convicting him of terror offenses in 2021 in a widely criticized trial. Rusesabagina inspired the film “Hotel Rwanda" for saving hundreds of countrymen from genocide.
The other candidate who has declared he will run for president next year is lawmaker Frank Habineza with the Green Democratic party, who received 0.45% of the votes in 2017.
Habineza told The Associated Press his party was not surprised by Kagame's announcement and will continue to fight for democracy.
“As we speak now, there is a high level of poverty and people have no food and youth have no jobs. This is what bothers Rwandans,” he said.
Some Kagame supporters believe he needs more time. William Harerimana, a 53-year-old businessman, said “we need to be patient a bit more and under him, the country will register more economic growth and benefit all Rwandans.”
Anna reported from Nairobi, Kenya.