RWANDA has voted to change the constitution to allow President Paul Kagame to potentially rule until 2034, according to partial referendum results, election officials said on Saturday.
“We have seen the will of the people. It’s clear that what the people want, they can achieve,” said National Electoral Commission chief Kalisa Mbanda, unveiling preliminary results from some 70% of the country and announcing a “yes” vote of 98.1%.
“They called for the change of the constitution and they have made it,” he said, according to the pro-government New Times newspaper. Kagame, 58, could now be in power potentially for another 17 years. “
What is happening is the people’s choice,” he told reporters after casting his vote on Friday.
The amendment allows Kagame to run for a third seven-year term in 2017, at the end of which the new rules take effect and he will be eligible to run for a further two five-year terms.
“Yes, Rwandans have spoken out loud and clear; they have taken their own destiny and that of their country into their own hands,” a New Times editorial said on Saturday. “There was no doubt from the beginning that the results from the referendum to amend the constitution was what was expected, regardless of the lame attempts to pour water on the process by Rwanda’s closest ‘development partners’,” it said in an allusion to US and European criticism.
Kagame has run Rwanda since his largely ethnic Tutsi rebel army, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), ended a 1994 genocide by extremists from the Hutu majority, when an estimated 800,000 people were massacred, the vast majority of them Tutsis.
Elsewhere on the continent, leaders’ attempts to extend their stays in office have sparked protests. In Burkina Faso, mass demonstrations forced Blaise Compaore to quit last year after almost three decades in power, while Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza’s disputed re-election in July has spurred worsening violence in which at least 400 people have died, including more than 80 in the past week.
A rushed affair
The amendments brought criticism from the United States and the European Union as well as the country’s tiny opposition Green Party. On Friday, the EU delegation in Kigali said there had been a lack of “sufficient time and space for debate” on the issue, with the date for the referendum only announced on December 8 and the draft of the changes “only published publicly less than one day ahead of the vote.”
The country’s tiny opposition Green Party also protested it was impossible to organise a counter campaign at such short notice. “The opposition would have won,” Green party president Frank Habineza said in a statement on Saturday.
“The Democratic Green Party of Rwanda will not give up on the struggle to make Rwanda a vibrant democracy.”
Rwandans starting voting when polling stations opened nationwide Friday from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m., with 6.39 million people eligible to cast ballots, according to the election commission.
The coffee-producing nation has been one of the fastest-growing African economies, with expansion of 7% last year expected to rise to 7.5% in 2015 and 2016.
-Additional reporting by Bloomberg.