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Rwanda: Referendum Approves Extended Presidential Terms

(Dec. 30, 2015) On December 19, 2015, Rwandan citizens approved a referendum to amend the country’s Constitution. Reportedly, 98% of the voters agreed to the revision of article 101. The change will permit the current president, Paul Kagame, to remain in office for a third seven-year term beginning in 2017, to be followed by two possible five-year terms. (Bradley McAllister, Rwanda Voters Approve Constitutional Referendum to Extend Presidential Term Limit, PAPER CHASE (Dec. 19, 2015).)

Article 101 of the Constitution, prior to the new revision, stated: “[t]he 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 (2) terms.” (Rwanda’s Constitution of 2003 with Amendments Through 2010, CONSTITUTE PROJECT (Sept. 28, 2015).) The revised law eliminates the seven-year term and permits presidents to serve two five-year terms, beginning in 2017. (Rwandans Decide on Presidential Term Limits, ALJAZEERA (Dec. 19, 2015).)

Background

Kagame is known as a leader of a Tutsi rebel force that successfully opposed the 1994 genocide in which 800,000 Tutsis were killed by Hutu fighters. He served as Minister of Defense and then Vice-President. Since 2003, when he won election with 95% of the votes, Kagame has been Rwanda’s President; he was re-elected for his second seven-year term in 2010. (Id.)

The constitutional referendum was approved by the lower house of Rwanda’s Parliament in October 2015 and by the upper house, the Senate, the next month. (McAllister, supra.) Rwanda’s Constitution specifies that referendums may be proposed by the Cabinet following an advisory opinion from the Supreme Court; the Senate is also empowered to vote on creating a referendum. (Rwanda’s Constitution of 2003 with Amendments Through 2010, arts. 88, 105, & 145.) The National Electoral Commission administers referendums. (Id. art. 180.)

Reactions Outside Rwanda

The revision of the constitutional provisions on presidential terms has been criticized outside Rwanda. The Director of the Royal African Society (RAS) stated, “[t]he longer somebody stays in power, the less effective they are and breaking the rule of law and the constitution weakens the state.” (McAllister, supra.) The RAS describes itself as “Britain’s prime Africa organization” and claims to “foster a better understanding of Africa in the UK and throughout the world … .” (About the Royal African Society, RAS website (last visited Dec. 24, 2015) [scroll down page to view].)

The British Minister for Africa, James Duddridge, criticized the way in which the referendum was conducted, stating, “[t]he short timeframe between the announcement of the referendum and the vote did not allow sufficient time for voters to consider and debate the proposed changes and for the case for and against to be made. A copy of the revised constitution was only made available less than one day ahead of the referendum.” He also advocated peaceful, democratic leadership transitions and said, “[c]hanging the constitution for the benefit of the incumbent risks serious damage to long-term stability and Rwanda’s reputation as a world leader.” (Press Release, Foreign & Commonwealth Office & James Duddridge MP, Constitutional Referendum in Rwanda (Dec. 21, 2015).)

The U.S. Department of State was critical of the plan to change the Constitution to extend the current presidency when the Parliament of Rwanda first entertained the idea earlier this year. A press release on the subject affirmed support for any parliament to pass legislation that furthers the will of a country’s people and noted, “we continue to firmly support the principle of democratic transition of power in all countries … ,” but “[w]e do not support those in positions of power changing constitutions solely for their political self-interest.” (Press Release, John Kirby, U.S. Department of State, Constitutional Reform Commission (Sept. 4, 2015).)

Similar Developments in Other African Nations

In 2006, President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, which borders Rwanda to the north, removed the existing presidential term limits; he is now eligible for re-election in 2016, to add to his 30-year hold on the presidency. Burundi, which lies just to the south of Rwanda, is currently experiencing civil unrest due to the decision of its President, Pierre Nkurunziza, to run for a third term. In addition, Joseph Kabila, president of the largest nation in the region, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, is reportedly planning to end term limits in the next year. He has already been in office for 15 years. (David Blair, Rwanda’s Leader Joins the African Autocrats Who Rewrite the Law to Hold Power, TELEGRAPH (Dec. 19, 2015); Constance Johnson, Burundi: Court Permits Third Bid for Presidency, GLOBAL LEGAL MONITOR (May 7, 2015).)