The ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front party this week said it is the will of the people to change the constitution so President Paul Kagame can seek a third term in office, VOANews reports.
In early April, Kagame, 57, said he disagreed with initiatives to amend the constitution. He has not said if he will support the move.
About 3.6 million of Rwanda’s 11.8 million people signed a petition asking the Rwandan parliament to change the constitution so Kagame can serve a third term. Critics say people who signed were forced to do so by officials.
The 3.6 million people who signed the petition represent around 72 percent of those on the Rwandan electoral roll, InternationalBusinessTimes reports.
Third-term bids by African presidents represent one of the major threats to stability on the continent, according to the Institute For Security Studies.
U.K.-based human rights activist and politician Rene Claudel Mugenzi told IBTimesUK the Rwandan government forced people to sign the petition to avoid international criticism.
“The Rwandan government does not want to be seen as a dictator government, but on the same side they want to change the constitution and they want to make it as the change is driven by the people, but the reality is that this is a set-up,” Mugenzi said.
In neighboring Burundi, riots erupted after President Pierre Nkurunziza’s April 25 announcement that he would seek re-election for a third term.
Opponents said this was a violation of the constitution. Analysts say Kagame has a strong grip on power and they don’t anticipate similar violent protests in Rwanda if he runs for office a third time, VOA reports. Protests have subsided in Burundi as the July 15 presidential election approaches.
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Rwandan Vice President Christophe Bazivamo said people were happy to sign the petition, IBTimes reports. “I think it is not possible to force 3.6 million people to sign a petition,” Bazivamo said. “People who have signed were actually happy to do so. It’s not possible to force people to sign and to also make them happy.”
Rwanda’s constitution limits presidents to two seven-year terms. Kagame, who was re-elected in a landslide in 2010, said in April that the constitution was made by the people and they must decide any changes.
Kagame, 57, has won international praise since the 1994 genocide for helping transform Rwanda’s economy and encouraging technological development. Critics say he has restricted press and political freedom.
The Rwandan Patriotic Front said in a statement, “Based on the wishes of Rwandans and party members that have been recently expressed, we support that the (constitution)… should be amended.”
Political leaders should not force anyone to sign petitions, Kagame said, according to VOA. “If the allegations that some people have been forced are true, that’s a concern and you should also have that concern,” Kagame told party members.
“The population signed the petition because of facts,” Bazivamo said, according to IBTimes. “We achieved goals when it comes to child and maternal mortality. When it comes to security and social economic development, from 1994 until now, the situation has improved.”
Kagame became president in 2000 after being elected by the national assembly and government ministers. In 2003, Rwanda replaced the transitional government and adopted a new constitution. Kagame was re-elected president. In 2010 he won the election again.
It’s unlikely Rwandans will protest against the decision due to the strong support Kagame enjoys, some international commentators have said. People believe in his ability to transform Rwanda into a middle-income country by 2020, IBTimes reports.
Others say Rwandans are too scared to protest.
“Burundi is very different because there people are protesting,” Mugenzi said. “In Rwanda you cannot protest. In Burundi they have freedoms…in Rwanda you have no freedom.”
Kagame has been at the top of Rwandan politics since 1994, when an ethnic Tutsi rebel force of the now-ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front ended the genocide by Hutu extremists that left about 800,000 — mostly Tutsis — dead, TimesLive reports.
Formerly minister of defense and vice-president, Kagame became president in 2003 with 95 percent of the vote. He was re-elected in 2010 with a majority vote.
“From the trauma of genocide, he has been painted as a guarantor of stability and economic development, earning praise from donors,” according to TimesLive.
The Rwandan Patriotic Front ended the 1994 genocide by defeating the civilian and military authorities responsible for the killing campaign, according to HumanRightsWatch.