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Rwanda to Debate Constitutional Change to Keep President in Power for Third Term

Almost 20 percent of the population has signed the petitions, but Kagame's strong-arm tactics lead many to question their authenticity

by Matthieu Jublin
May 28 2015, 8:21pm

Photo bu Jeon Heon-Kyun/EPA

Rwanda's parliament announced Wednesday it would debate modifying the country's constitution in order to allow President Paul Kagame to stand for a third term in the 2017 presidential elections. The debate, which will take place over the summer, was triggered by petitions signed by nearly 2 million Rwandans who say they are in favor of changing the East African nation's constitution.

The head of Rwanda's chamber of deputies, Donatilla Mukabalisa, told AFP that parliament had "received 2 million requests" from people — amounting to roughly 20 percent of the population — to amend article 101 of the constitution, which currently limits the number of terms to two. Mukabalisa said that both chambers of parliament would debate the matter between June 5 and August 4.

By many measures, Rwanda in the last 20 years is a success story: Its economy is one of the fastest growing in Africa, life expectancy has increased, malaria deaths are down, infrastructure investment is up, education has improved -- all under Kagame. But it may have come at a price.

"Given the highly authoritarian exercise of power practiced by the president and his team, there are strong doubts over the authenticity of these signatures," said French historian Gérard Prunier, an expert on East Africa. Speaking to VICE News on Thursday, Prunier conceded that, despite his suspicions over the legitimacy of the petitions, "Paul Kagame will probably have no trouble holding on to power."

No repeat of Burundi
Kagame — who has been described as a strongman for his oppressive brand of governance — has been at the forefront of Rwandan politics since 1994, when his party, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), put an end to the genocide by Hutu extremists that left 800,000 people dead. After serving as vice president and defense minister, Kagame won two presidential elections with overwhelming majorities: one in 2003, with 95 percent of votes, the other in 2010, with 93 percent.

Rwanda's opposition has accused Kagame of crushing dissent and muzzling the opposition since coming to power. The ruling RPF party dominates both chambers of parliament and seems unwilling to relinquish power despite the two-term cap on the presidency. "Kagame's political base is very powerful. He controls all state institutions and the RPF has a strong presence throughout the small national territory," Prunier told VICE News.

But despite the president's political ambitions, Prunier thinks Rwanda is unlikely to tread in the footsteps of its neighbor Burundi, where the incumbent president's bid for a third term has led to mass protests and a coup attempt. "Unlike Burundian president Pierre Nkurunziza, who is also after a third term, President Kagame is being much more canny and will probably avoid a popular uprising," said Prunier.

Assassination of Opposition Figure in Burundi Derails Talks Between Protesters and Government

Waves of refugees have recently crossed over the border from Burundi into Rwanda, fleeing the ongoing political crisis and outbreaks of violence in Burundi. According to the UN's Refugee Agency (UNHCR), some 25,000 people have left Burundi for Rwanda, which is already home to 70,000 refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

2 million signatures
Speaking to AFP Wednesday, London-based Rwandan exile and activist René Mugenzi said the 2 million signatures were nothing more than "a show" aimed at lending credibility to the idea that "constitutional change has been requested by the people." According to Mugenzi, many Rwandans are forced to sign petitions to hold onto their jobs and to prevent social exclusion.  

Mukabalisa has denied the allegations, saying that, "This is an initiative by the people […] they have not in any way been forced."

The current regime has taken much credit for the country's economic growth since the genocide. "Paul Kagame is a very good manager and has drawn extensively on the country's resources," explained Prunier, "even though only a minority of people benefit from the economic benefits, and even though the so-called 'Rwandan Miracle' is partly financed by foreign investors."

With a GDP growth somewhere between 5 and 10 percent over the last 20 years and a high level of political stability, Rwanda has emerged as one of Africa's most attractive economic markets in recent years.

Follow Matthieu Jublin on Twitter : @MatthieuJublin

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