ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
What do you do when a country's democracy is being dismantled by its own people? Paul Kagame has been president of Rwanda for 15 years. He could serve for up to 17 more. Rwandans voted overwhelmingly to change the country's constitution to let him run again and again. The White House has criticized the referendum. President Obama has called on African leaders to adhere to term limits. But as NPR's Gregory Warner reports, Rwanda's approach may be hard to counter.
GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: In his speech to the nation today, President Kagame didn't say that he would run for office, but he certainly kept the path to power well-cleared. He said he respected the will of the Rwandan people and thanked them for voting in last week's referendum to allow him additional terms. And he had harsh words for the statements of foreign governments, like the one made by the White House.
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PAUL KAGAME: Statements that acknowledge our good results while depicting Rwandans as people incapable of either thought or feeling are not critical. They are deliberately abusive.
WARNER: Kagame has positioned himself as the spokesman for African self-reliance. He stands against Western meddling in African politics. And every conversation about Rwanda's future always drags up the past. In 1994, Kagame led the Rwandan Patriotic Front to stop the genocide without help from Western countries. He's argued that those countries don't have the right to intervene now. Rwandan minister of justice Besingye Johnston added by phone that even 21 years after genocide, Rwanda isn't ready for the messy business of pluralistic democracy.
BESINGYE JOHNSTON: The unity, the fabric of Rwanda was totally shattered. What was a nation was dismembered into scattered groups of human beings.
WARNER: As president, Kagame has made great strides against poverty and gender discrimination. Women dominate the Rwandan parliament. But that quest for unity is seen by others as autocracy. Rwanda today has no civic freedom, no free press or political opposition. It's a small country mostly controlled by one leader. But what does Rwanda look like after Kagame? J. Peter Pham is the director of the Africa Center for the Atlantic Council. He says the White House statement urging Kagame to step down at the end of his second term in 2017 is a mistake. As diplomacy, he says it's too simplistic.
J. PETER PHAM: It is when you look at the neighborhood.
WARNER: Just look at Rwanda's southern neighbor, Burundi - it's plunged into violence over that president's third-term bid - or to the west, the Democratic Republic of Congo. It threatens to go over the edge for the same reason, whereas Rwanda held an orderly referendum to legally change its constitution.
PHAM: The other challenge for the international community is, if not Kagame, who? The political space in the country is such that it's very difficult, even for Rwanda experts, to name someone who could possibly step in.
WARNER: That political vacuum is one that Kagame mostly created. It also makes him the hardest to unseat. Gregory Warner, NPR News, Nairobi.
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