Activists criticise constitutional change to extend Kagame's rule

Rwanda President Paul Kagame casting his vote in Rwanda's capital Kigali.
Rwanda President Paul Kagame casting his vote in Rwanda's capital Kigali. REUTERS

Final official results of Rwanda's referendum on constitutional change show an overwhelming majority in favour of allowing President Paul Kagame extra terms in office. Kagame welcomed the result, which could allow him to run again. 


Paul Kagame did not say whether he intended to run in the next election due to be held in 2017. Rwanda is not the only African country where its leader has called for constitutional change in order to remain in power.

The amendments of the constitution will allow Kagame to run for an exceptional third seven-year term in 2017, at the end of which new rules will be in place and he will be eligible to run for a further two five-year terms, meaning that he could be in power until 2034.

This is not a contitutional "coup d'etat" as in other countries, such as Burundi. Kagame insisted the constitutional changes were put to a referendum following a petition supporting his plan received 4 million signatures.

This alone caused a lot of controversy.

"Campaigning was not permitted, we were told we couldn't run a campaign against that referendum. It was not a level playing field... They only gave us one week notice, so that's a very short itme to do anything... We were opposed to the change of the constitution because it's a threat to security, especially after what we are seeing in the Burundi," opposition Green Party leader, Frank Habineza, who petitioned the court to block the constitutional changes, told RFI.

According to the results, more than 98% of the population votes "yes" but there are two ways of seeing things.

On one hand, Kagame remains a very popular president. He is largely credited with engineering Rwanda’s turnaround from a war-ravaged, ethnically divided country to a united and successful nation.

On the other hand, campaign groups accuse the Rwandan government of stifling free speech, dissent and political opposition.

"There are tight restrictions on freedom of speech and this has been the case really ever since the end of the genocide in 1994, so currently, there is very limited possibility for anyone to challenge, question or oppose the ruling party or President Kagame," Carina Tertsakian, the Human Rights Watch researcher for Rwanda, told RFI.

"There are several opposition leaders who are still in prison today. There have been Rwandan dissidents both inside and outside Rwanda who've been murdered, who've been attacked or threatened, and local civil society is extremely weak after years of government intimidation, threats and other obstacles."

She says that many Rwandans also censor themselves out of fear of the government.

The debate over extending presidential terms has led to instability and violence this year in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and in Burkina Faso and it is causing ongoing bloodshed in Burundi. That is one of the reasons Rwandans fear political change.

The European Union and the US state department have both condemned the vote, and called on Kagame to stand down in order to “foster a new generation of leaders in Rwanda”.

"Presidents who have had a very personal approach to their presidency often believe they are indispensable to the smooth running of the country, that they are the saviours of the country and since there's often little opposition... these presidents simply consider that they have to get the job done... for life." Philippe Hugon, a Senior Research Fellow at IRIS, The French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs, told RFI.

And despite the fact that Kagame said that when the time comes to transfer responsibility, he would do so... he also said that it would be a failure if he did not find a suitable replacement before the end of his current mandate.

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