, KIGALI, Jul 14 – Rwandan lawmakers were set to debate Tuesday possible changes to the constitution to allow strongman Paul Kagame a third term in power as president.
Over 3.7 million people — well over half of the voters — have signed a petition calling for a change of Article 101 of the constitution, which limits the president to two terms, according to Rwandan media.
The public have been invited to attend the debate to “examine the relevance of the people’s petitions submitted to the parliament, asking for the amendment of the Article 101 of the constitution on presidential terms,” a parliamentary statement read, according to the New Times newspaper Tuesday.
Separate debates in both the lower and upper houses of parliament were due to begin Tuesday morning.
Kagame, 57, has been at the top of Rwandan politics since 1994, when an offensive by his Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) rebels put an end to a genocide by Hutu extremists that left an estimated 800,000 people dead, most of whom were Tutsis.
As minister of defence and then vice president, Kagame was widely seen as the power behind the throne even before he took the presidency in 2003, winning 95 percent of the vote. He was re-elected in 2010 with a similarly resounding mandate. The next elections are due in 2017.
From the trauma of genocide, he has been painted as a guarantor of stability and economic development, earning praise from donors — and his supporters say many in Rwanda view the prospect of his departure as a step into the unknown. Critics say he has silenced opposition and the media.
Kagame says the decision is for the “Rwandan people”.
“I have not asked anyone to change the constitution and I have not told anybody how or what to think about 2017,” Kagame said in April.
Any change to the constitution would require a vote in support by at least three-quarters of both parliamentary houses, followed by a national referendum.
The move comes amid a wider controversy in Africa over efforts by leaders to change constitutions in order to stay in office.
Neighbouring Burundi has been in turmoil since April when President Pierre Nkurunziza announced his bid to stand for a third term in polls, a move branded by opponents as unconstitutional and a violation of a peace deal that paved the way to end civil war in 2006.