Saturday, December 19, 2015 10:07 am
President Paul Kagame could rule Rwanda for up to 40 years, till 2034.
His people have said so loud and clear in a referendum on Friday in which they overwhelmingly supported changing the constitution to allow Kagame to extend his term in office. His present term ends in 2017.
Under the constitutional changes, Kagame could seek another seven-year term and two five-year terms after that.
“The electoral commission declares in public that 98.3 percent of voting Rwandans accepted the constitution as amended in 2015,” National Electoral Commission chairman Kalisa Mbanda told a news conference after Friday’s vote.
The number of those who voted in favour of the changes was 6.16 million. The commission released some partial results late on Friday and final results are expected on Monday.
Kagame, 58, has been president since 2000 but effectively in control since his rebel force marched into Kigali in 1994 to end a genocide.
“The tendency is that a Yes vote shall win by 98.1 percent and the No vote will be at 1.9 percent. But this is the provisional results from 21 districts which represents 70 percent of the 30 districts that voted,” National Electoral Commission chairman Kalisa Mbanda said in a televised announcement of the provisional results.
Charles Munyaneza, the commission’s executive secretary, said the rest of the results would be released today at 1100 a.m. (0900 GMT).
The vote took place despite criticism of such an amendment by the United States and other Western donors.
Kagame has not said if he would run again, but is widely expected to. Asked at the polling station if he would stay on, he told reporters: “What is happening is the people’s choice. Ask people why they want me.”
The United States, a major donor that has praised Kagame for rebuilding the nation since the genocide, said this month Kagame should resist the lure of power and step down in 2017 to allow a new generation of leaders to come through.
The debate about extending presidential terms has swept other African nations. It has triggered violence and instability in Burundi and Congo Republic, but not in Rwanda.
“Rwanda is secure now and it’s thanks to him,” Musa Habimana, 60, a businessman, said after voting, echoing the views of many who back a leader credited with ending a massacre in which 800,000 mostly Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed.
Nationalist songs blared in some polling stations. The lyrics of one included the words: “We shall protect the country. We shall protect its leaders.”
Despite Kagame’s success in delivering economic and social change, rights groups accuse the government of stifling the media and political opposition, a charge it denies.
“Elections in Rwanda have never been transparent, so even if I could go, my ‘no’ vote would not be counted,” said one woman who asked not to be identified for fear of repercussions.
The tiny Democratic Green Party, the only real opposition party, tried to block the move in court but the case was rejected. It complained it could not campaign either. “It was not a level playing field,” said party leader Frank Habineza.
Western diplomats also said the changes were rushed through.
“Kagame clearly enjoys considerable public support across the country, but it is difficult to know what many Rwandans really think,” wrote Carina Tertsakian of Human Rights Watch, citing restrictions on free speech.
The government has dismissed such criticism. It says the decision to change the constitution and hold a referendum was taken after a public petition was presented to parliament with 3.7 million signatories in a nation of 11 million people.