Rwandans head to poll early Friday to participate in a referendum to amend the constitution that could allow President Paul Kagame to rule the East-Central African nation until 2034.
The proposed constitutional amendment would allow Kagame to run for an exceptional third seven-year term in 2017, after which he would also be eligible to run for two further five-year terms under the new rules.
Polls opened in the capital Kigali on time at 7 am, about 0500 GMT with large turnouts, with voters reportedly keen to cast their vote for continuation of Kagame’s reign. Overseas voting among some 40,000 registered Rwandans took place on Thursday, but the main polls are taking place on Friday, when 6.4 million people are eligible to cast their ballots. Polls will close at 3 pm (1300 GMT).
Although, the expected constitutional amendments have been denounced by many western countries including United States of America as a major set back on the country’s democracy, most Rwandans backed Kagame’s tenure elongation project.
“There is no secret, I will vote yes,” said Saidi Alfred, waiting in a line of around a hundred people to vote at a school in Kigali as polls opened. “It is because we want the president to continue to lead us. What interests me is that the president is re-elected,” Alfred said.
Kagame has been in power as Rwandan president since his ethnic Tutsi rebel army, the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF), ended a 1994 genocide by extremists from the Hutu majority, in which an estimated 800,000 people were massacred, the vast majority of them Tutsis.
The issue of long-serving rulers clinging to power has caused turmoil in Africa, where some heads of state have been at the helm for decades.
Lawmakers in Rwanda, however, insist the proposed constitutional changes are the result of a popular movement, although Kigali has been criticised for stifling freedom of speech and the RPF has a pervasive presence at all levels of society.
Earlier this year, some 3.7 million people signed a petition calling for constitutional changes to allow Kagame to stand again.
In response to criticism, Kagame has said that “other nations” should not interfere with the country’s internal affairs, or his people’s wishes.
By Olisemeka Obeche (with agency reports)