With little or no opposition to plans to scrap term limits, now Rwanda President Paul Kagame is expected to smoothly extend his stay in office beyond 2017.
On Tuesday, the Senate and Members of Parliament overwhelmingly voted in favour of a referendum following more than 3.7 million petitions submitted to the House calling for the removal of term limits to allow President Kagame to contest again in 2017.
Only the Green Party, the country's tiny but main opposition, and an individual petitioner to Parliament had expressed their disapproval to the proposed plans to amend Article 101 of the constitution, with the former challenging the move in court.
The petitioner identified as Vitus Nshimiyimana, a resident of the Eastern Province, in a letter to Parliament said the president had not delivered on all his 2010 promises when he was re-elected for his second and final term of seven years.
Frank Habineza, the Democratic Green Party of Rwanda president expressed his disappointed that Parliament went ahead to debate and make a decision despite the case it had filed demanding the Supreme Court to block the House from plans to amend the constitution.
“We are disappointed that the Parliament could not wait for the Supreme Court ruling planned for July 29. This is more evidence for our case,” Habineza said, adding that the party had hoped that Parliament could not table and discuss this matter before the court’s decision.
“However this development just proves our fears that there is a plan to amend the constitution. We have been accused of filing a case based on speculation or rumours but this shows us that the plan to amend the constitution is really underway,” Mr Habineza told The EastAfrican.
The legislators said amending the constitution was legitimate but called for further consultations with the citizenry to interrogate other demands of articles they would want to be amended.
Hundreds of people in busses, chanting pro-Kagame songs were ferried to the Parliament as the Lower Chamber of Deputies and the Senate opened discussions on the legal basis of the petitions which were delivered to the House over the last couple of months.
With no one objecting change of the constitution, for six hours Rwandan legislators spoke in praise of the Rwandan leader and said that they could not go against the wishes of millions of Rwandans.
“More than three million Rwandans have spoken, we have seen many Rwandans speaking through their different groupings. What else should the house wait for, rather than addressing the demands of the people?” said Juvenal Nkusi, a member of the Liberal Party (PL).
Other leading political parties in Rwanda including PL and the Social Democratic Party (PSD) have come out to support the campaign to amend the constitution to remove term limits, in a move that will like see President Kagame and his ruling party Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) Inkotanyi stay put in 2017.
The legislators, based on reasons advanced by the people, including achievements and development registered during President Kagame’s reign, voted in favour of scrapping the term limits to allow President Kagame to contest again when his current constitutional term expires.
The Rwandan president has maintained that he is ready to respect the constitution but urged a ‘healthy debate’ on the matter amid calls to amend it, adding that he needs to be ‘convinced’ by the side which says he should stay.
“I believe what has happened here is convincing enough. It is the first time in history Rwandans have come out to exercise their freedom of choice and I think what Rwandans have done here and what MPs have expressed is enough to convince President Kagame,” said Abas Mukama, the deputy Speaker.
Describing President Kagame as a ‘saviour’ and a ‘champion of democracy, development, security and stability’, MPs unanimously voted in favour of removing term limits to ensure that President Kagame is not ‘locked’ out when Rwandans still need him.
“We cannot deny ourselves an opportunity of having President Kagame because we fear what the international community or foreigners will think of us,” said another MP Edouard Bamporiki, adding that the matter should be left for Rwandans to decide.
The Greens, the only opposition political party operating in the country, filed the lawsuit in the country’s highest court on June 3, demanding the court to block Parliament from any future plans of changing the constitution.
The Green Party particularly wants the court to block the amendment of the article in the constitution to lift presidential term limits but the party has met obstacles along the way after failing to secure a lawyer.
In its petition, the party wants the Supreme Court to order the Rwandan Parliament not to change Article 101 of the Constitution and to confirm that no referendum is required for those wishing to remove term limits from the Constitution.
The contentious Article 101 of the constitution stipulates “The President of the Republic is elected for a term of seven years renewable only once. Under no circumstances shall a person hold the office of President of Republic for more than two terms.”
Those supporting the amendment of the constitution say that Article 193, concerning amendments to the Constitution, does provide grounds on which Article 101 or any other articles, can be amended.
Article 193 indicates that “if the constitutional amendment concerns the term of the President of the Republic…, the amendment must be passed by referendum”. The Green Party however maintains that Article 101 is untouchable.
The ruling party Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) has already backed the proposed plan to amend the constitution. The Rwandan leader faces little opposition with only two years remaining to the 2017 presidential polls.