Rwanda’s lower house of parliament debated on Wednesday a constitutional change that would allow President Paul Kagame to run for a third term, a move opposed by the United States and other donors.
The amended constitution will still be a draft that faces a referendum, but it is expected to pass. Parliament met after a petition calling for the changes was signed by 3.7 million people who backed President Paul Kagame, who many credit with rebuilding Rwanda after the 1994 genocide. Kagame, who is serving his second seven-year term, is yet to publically announce his intentions to run for a third term but many observers believe he will.
Critics say the government stifles the media and opposition voices, a charge it denies. A bid by the main but tiny opposition Democratic Green Party to block constitutional changes was rejected by the Supreme Court.
“All depends on the opinions of the people,” the Supreme Court said in its October ruling.
During Wednesday’s debate, parliament backed an amendment to reduce presidential terms to five years from seven, while it would let Kagame to serve his current seven-year term until 2017. Remaining amendments were to be put to a vote on Thursday.
“The job was well done considering the timeline and the parliament committee was open for any ideas from the house. We ask that you vote accordingly so that we can present a constitution that responds to our history as a country,” said Deputy Speaker of Parliament Jeanne d’Arc.
The amended constitution will still set a two-term limit in general, but will make an exception for the existing president. Article 167 notes the public petition of support and says the current president – Kagame – can seek another term. Article 167 has yet to be voted on.
Once the lower house passes the constitutional changes, the upper house of Senate will also vote on the draft. But, like the lower house, it is dominated by allies or supporters of Kagame.
Speaking on the DW’s political talk show “Conflict Zone,” Rwanda Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo expressed hope that Kagame will run for another term. Host Tim Sebastian asked the minister about US President Obama’s speech to the African Union where he said that “Africa’s democratic progress is also at risk from leaders who refuse to step aside when their terms end.”
“President Obama or anybody else is free to say what they want. The decision is by the Rwandan people. They are the ones who know who should govern them and speak,” Mushikiwabo said.
The United States, a major donor to Rwanda, has said it was concerned by moves to change the constitution. Washington said this month it “opposed those in positions of power changing constitutions solely for their political self-interest.”
“There is a question as to whether donors will continue to support Rwanda the way they have,” said Pritish Behuria, a fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science.
The US has provided the country with over $1 billion (900 million euros) over the past ten years. Behuria thinks that donors and critics of Kagame have to view realities on the ground in Rwanda and not get taken away with the idea that democracy is the model form of government.
“Rather than think about democracy as the solution to everything, there should be a more pragmatic approach to what can be done,” he said.
Behuria believes that Kagame has done this by focusing on economic development, an area in which the president has been very successful and therefore very popular.
Neighboring term limits
In Burundi, President Pierre Nkurunziza sparked months of protests and a failed coup when he decided in April to run for a third term which he subsequently won. Opponents said the move violated the constitution and a deal that ended a civil war there. A court ruled he could run again.
Neighboring Uganda will be having a presidential election in early 2016. President Yoweri Museveni is expected to win a fifth five-year term after Parliament voted down term limits in 2005.
Former rebel leader Kagame won international and domestic praise for rebuilding Rwanda after the chaos of the 1990s. Some 800,000 people, most of them Tutsis and moderate Hutus, were massacred before rebel forces led by Kagame ended the genocide.