The President of Rwanda is the head of state, and has broad powers including creating policy in conjunction with the Cabinet, exercising the prerogative of mercy, commanding the armed forces, negotiating and ratifying treaties, signing presidential orders, and declaring war or a state of emergency. The President is elected by popular vote every seven years and appoints the Prime Minister and all other members of Cabinet.
The incumbent President is Paul Kagame, who took office upon the resignation of his predecessor, Pasteur Bizimungu, in 2000. Kagame subsequently won elections in 2003 and 2010, although human rights organizations have criticized these elections as being “marked by increasing political repression and a crackdown on free speech”.
Article 101 of the current constitution limits presidents to two terms in office, but as of 2015 there is a motion underway in the Rwandan parliament to amend this and allow Kagame to run for a third term. The motion, which would require ratification by referendum, was brought following receipt of a petition signed by 3.8 million Rwandans.
The constitution was adopted following a national referendum in 2003, replacing the transitional constitution which had been in place since 1994. The constitution mandates a multi-party system of government, with politics based on democracy and elections. However, the constitution places conditions on how political parties may operate.
Article 54 states that “political organizations are prohibited from basing themselves on race, ethnic group, tribe, clan, region, sex, religion or any other division which may give rise to discrimination”. The government has also enacted laws criminalizing genocide ideology, which can include intimidation, defamatory speeches, genocide denial and mocking of victims.
According to Human Rights Watch, these laws effectively make Rwanda a one-party state, as “under the guise of preventing another genocide, the government displays a marked intolerance of the most basic forms of dissent”. Amnesty International is also critical; in its 2014/15 report Amnesty said that laws against inciting insurrection or trouble among the population had been used to imprison people “for the legitimate exercise of their rights to freedom of association or of expression”.
The Parliament consists of two chambers. It makes legislation and is empowered by the constitution to oversee the activities of the President and the Cabinet. The lower chamber is the Chamber of Deputies, which has 80 members serving five-year terms. Twenty-four of these seats are reserved for women, elected through a joint assembly of local government officials; another three seats are reserved for youth and disabled members; the remaining 53 are elected by universal suffrage under a proportional representation system.
Following the 2013 election, there are 51 female deputies, up from 45 in 2008; as of 2015, Rwanda is one of only two countries with a female majority in the national parliament. The upper chamber is the 26-seat Senate, whose members are selected by a variety of bodies. A mandatory minimum of 30% of the senators are women. Senators serve eight-year terms.
Rwanda’s legal system is largely based on German and Belgian civil law systems and customary law. The judiciary is independent of the executive branch, although the President and the Senate are involved in the appointment of Supreme Court judges. Human Rights Watch have praised the Rwandan government for progress made in the delivery of justice including the abolition of the death penalty, but also allege interference in the judicial system by members of the government, such as the politically motivated appointment of judges, misuse of prosecutorial power, and pressure on judges to make particular decisions.
The constitution provides for two types of courts: ordinary and specialized. Ordinary courts are the Supreme Court, the High Court, and regional courts, while specialized courts are military courts and a system of commercial courts created in 2011 to expedite commercial litigation. Between 2004 and 2012, a system of Gacaca courts was in operation. Gacaca, a Rwandan traditional court operated by villages and communities, was revived to expedite the trials of genocide suspects. The court succeeded in clearing the backlog of genocide cases but was criticized by human rights groups as not meeting legal fair standard.
Rwanda has low corruption levels relative to most other African countries; in 2014, Transparency International ranked Rwanda as the fifth cleanest out of 47 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa and 55th cleanest out of 175 in the world. The constitution provides for an Ombudsman, whose duties include prevention and fighting of corruption. Public officials (including the President) are required by the constitution to declare their wealth to the Ombudsman and to the public; those who do not comply are suspended from office.
The Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) has been the dominant political party in the country since 1994. The RPF has maintained control of the presidency and the Parliament in national elections, with the party’s vote share consistently exceeding 70%. The RPF is seen as a Tutsi-dominated party but receives support from across the country, and is credited with ensuring continued peace, stability, and economic growth.
Human rights organization Freedom House claims that the government suppresses the freedoms of opposition groups; in its 2015 report, Freedom House alleged that the RPF had “prevented new political parties from registering and arrested the leaders of several existing parties, effectively preventing them from fielding candidates” in elections. Amnesty International also claims that the RPF rules Rwanda “without any meaningful opposition”.
Rwanda is a member of the United Nations, African Union, Francophonie, East African Community, and the Commonwealth of Nations. For many years during the Habyarimana regime, the country maintained close ties with France, as well as Belgium, the former colonial power. Under the RPF government, however, Rwanda has sought closer ties with neighbouring countries in the East African Community and with the English-speaking world. Diplomatic relations with France were suspended in 2006 following the indictment of Rwandan officials by a French judge, and despite their restoration in 2010, as of 2015 relations between the countries remain strained.
Relations with the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) were tense following Rwanda’s involvement in the First and Second Congo Wars; the Congolese army alleged Rwandan attacks on their troops, while Rwanda blamed the Congolese government for failing to suppress Hutu rebels in North and South Kivu provinces. Relations soured further in 2012, as Kinshasa accused Rwanda of supporting the M23 rebellion, an insurgency in the eastern Congo. As of 2015, peace has been restored and relations are improving. Rwanda’s relationship with Uganda was also tense for much of the 2000s following a 1999 clash between the two countries’ armies as they backed opposing rebel groups in the Second Congo War, but improved significantly in the early 2010s; as of 2015, the two countries enjoy a good relationship.
The Rwanda Defence Force (RDF) is the national army of Rwanda. Largely composed of former Rwandan Patriotic Army (RPA) soldiers, it includes the Rwanda Land Force, Rwanda Air Force and specialized units. After the successful conquest of the country in 1994 in the aftermath of the Rwandan Genocide, the Rwandan Patriotic Front decided to split the RPF into a political division (which retained the RPF name) and the RDF, a military division which was to serve as the official army of the Rwandan state.
Defence spending continues to represent an important share of the national budget, largely due to continuing security problems along the frontiers with the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Burundi and lingering concerns about Uganda’s intentions towards its former ally. In 2010, the United Nations released a report accusing the Rwandan army of committing wide scale human rights violations and crimes against humanity in the Democratic Republic of the Congo during the First and Second Congo Wars, charges denied by the Rwandan government.