RWANDA’S lower house of parliament on Thursday passed a constitutional amendment enabling President Paul Kagame to run for a third consecutive term in 2017 and potentially paving the way for the strongman to remain in power till 2034.
“I want to thank everyone who participated in this process, we have finished our work… we took into account the wishes of the people,” said Donatille Mukabalisa, speaker of the lower house.
Constitutional change must still be voted on by the upper house, before being put to a national referendum — but it is widely expected to be passed with little outspoken opposition.
If passed, it could see Kagame potentially rule until 2034, four decades since he effectively took power.
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 that seven years, he could then potentially run for another two terms of five years each.
Kagame has run Rwanda since his rebel army ended the 1994 genocide and ousted Hutu extremists.
He won elections in 2003 and 2010 and, under the current law, is due to step aside in 2017 at the end of his second term.
But earlier this year, more than 60 percent of voters signed a petition calling for constitutional changes to be drafted that would allow Kagame to stand again.
Both houses of parliament are dominated by the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), Kagame’s party.
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.
But critics say the move is orchestrated by a government and leader with an iron grip on a country where freedom of expression is severely curtailed, and merely 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 also gained a third consecutive term despite months of protests and an attempted coup.