THE United States on Tuesday criticised a vote by Rwandan lawmakers to approve a change to their constitution to allow President Paul Kagame to serve a third term.
A State Department spokesman did not explicitly threaten that US aid to its traditionally close African friend would be cut, but warned ties could be reviewed.
The Rwandan senate’s decision to approve an amendment to the constitution must still go to a referendum, but is seen as likely to pass with little opposition. “The United States notes with great concern the Rwandan senate’s vote today,” State Department deputy spokesman Mark Toner told reporters in Washington.
“We expect President Kagame to follow through on the commitments he has made previously to foster a new generation of leaders in Rwanda and to step down at the end of his current term in 2017,” he said.
Asked whether the United States would consider reducing the assistance it provides to Rwanda if Kagame remains in office beyond the end of his term, Toner was cautious. “If he decides to remain in office, then that could impact US-Rwanda relations going forward,” he said.
Kagame has been the dominant politician in Rwanda since his rebel army ended the 1994 genocide and ousted Hutu extremists; first as vice president, and elected president over the last 12 years.
The vote was unanimously passed, an AFP reporter in the senate said.
“If I ran again, I would do more of what I am doing to improve the well being of the citizens of Rwanda,” Kagame said Tuesday, in a message posted on the presidential Twitter account.
The lower house passed the amendments earlier this month.
Lawmakers voted unanimously to approve cutting presidential terms from the current seven to five years, and maintain a two-term limit.
But an exception was made for Kagame, who would be allowed to run for another seven-year term after his current mandate ends in 2017.
After those seven years, he could then potentially run for another two terms of five years each, under the new laws, which would extend his rule to 2034. Kagame, who is 58 years old, would then be 77 - still 14 years younger than Zimbabwe’s 91-year-old Robert Mugabe.
Minor changes made by senators will now return to the lower house for voting, but those do not include the key sections related to the possible extension of Kagame’s rule.
Earlier this year, more than 60% of voters signed a petition calling for constitutional changes to be drafted that would allow Kagame to stand again.
Kagame’s aides have insisted that any bid for a third term would be in response to “popular demand” that he stay in power.
Supporters portray Kagame as a guarantor of post-genocide stability and the economic growth that has transformed the country over the past 20 years. Kagame also retains broad public support.
But critics say the move is orchestrated by a government and leader with a firm grip on a country where freedom of expression is often curtailed, and part of a wider trend of African leaders seeking to stay put.
Rwanda is the northern neighbour of Burundi, where this year President Pierre Nkurunziza gained a third consecutive term despite months of protests and an attempted coup, and a southern neighbour of DR Congo, where President Joseph Kabila is seen to be angling to get around the term limits and extend his stay in power.