The Rwandan Senate on Thursday passed a Bill establishing an independent commission to oversee the review of the country’s Constitution, and determine which articles must be amended amid calls to remove presidential term limits.
The Bill, which was previously passed by the Lower Chamber of Deputies, will be forwarded to President Paul Kagame to assent to and subsequently appoint members to the seven-member constitutional amendment commission that will work with parliament to review the current Constitution, which was promulgated in 2003.
President Kagame is expected to submit the names of the commissioners to the Cabinet, which in turn will send them to the Senate for approval before they can begin their work.
Presiding over an extraordinary session to discuss the Bill, the president of the Senate Bernard Makuza termed it a “matter of urgency for millions of Rwandans” who would like to see the Constitution reviewed to address their demands.
The Senators voted overwhelmingly in favour of the Bill. The majority said there was no need to debate the modalities of how to appoint the commissioners.
“What we need to discuss is the mandate of the commission. But, most importantly, we need to put the timelines within which the commission will operate, because what is clear is that the majority of Rwandans want to see the changes in the Constitution in the shortest time possible,” said Michel Rugema.
Article 11 of the Bill establishing the Support Commission to Parliament, both Chambers, for the review of the Constitution, states that the commissioners shall be appointed by a presidential order.
According to the senators, there is a need to expedite plans to establish the constitutional amendment commission which will provide legal expertise to Parliament in amending the articles.
Political players questioned the neutrality of the commission.
“It is not for the head of state to have the power to appoint a commission, which in essence will determine a matter to which he is party. We think such a commission won’t have independence,” said Frank Habineza, president of the Democratic Green Party of Rwanda.
Mr Habineza and his party have petitioned the Supreme Court to block the ongoing processes to amend the Constitution to remove presidential term limits, saying it is “unconstitutional.”
The court will rule on the matter on September 9.
If the court fails to stop the push, a referendum to vote on the matter is expected next year.
According to Article 113 of the Constitution, the head of state, through a presidential order, appoints "members of commissions and heads of specialised institutions provided for by the Constitution" upon approval by the cabinet or senate.
A diplomatic observer who spoke to The EastAfrican said that such a referendum would be a waste of time and resources since the outcome is already decided.
“Usually donors do not fund such an activity, but even if it were to be funded domestically, it would be a waste of funds logically speaking, if we are to go by the current figures of 3.7 million Rwandans signing petitions.
“The question would be why should scarce resources be wasted on a referendum,” the European diplomat said.
In favour of amendments
Based on earlier reasons given by members of the Lower House, Senators said that the constitutional amendment commission will assist parliament in reviewing the articles of the Constitution that are set to change.
Senator Gallican Niyongana said the majority of Rwandans are in favour of amending the 2003 Constitution to change articles that they feel are against the general interests of the people.
“We felt there was no need to delay a process that was started by the people,” Mr Niyongana said.
The Senators also discussed the budget for the commission during its four months of operation.
Rwandan legislators said the Bill was fast-tracked to meet the demands of over 4 million Rwandans who want to change the constitution particularly to grant President Kagame another term in office after his current mandate expires in 2017.
Over 3.7 million Rwandans reportedly signed petitions that were submitted to parliament calling for the amendment of Article 101 to remove presidential term limits.