The United States hit out Saturday at Rwandan President Paul Kagame’s intention to run for a third term, saying it was “deeply disappointed” and concerned by the move.
Washington and the European Union have consistently expressed strong opposition to Kagame, once a darling of the West, running again, and had called on him to step aside in 2017 to allow new faces to emerge and democracy to flourish.
“With this decision, President Kagame ignores a historic opportunity to reinforce and solidify the democratic institutions the Rwandan people have for more than 20 years labored so hard to establish,” State Department spokesman John Kirby said in a statement.
Kagame said Friday he would run again in line with a constitutional amendment that won overwhelming backing in a referendum.
The December 18 referendum saw voters massively approve constitutional amendments allowing Kagame, 58, to run for an exceptional third seven-year term in 2017.
Thereafter, new rules will come into force enabling him to run for a further two five-year terms through to 2034, cementing his hold on a country he has effectively controled since his rebel force ended the 1994 genocide, which left 800,000 dead.
Opponents and some international observers say Kagame has effectively stifled democracy in the nation of 10 million.
“The United States believes constitutional transitions of power are essential for strong democracies and that efforts by incumbents to change rules to stay in power weaken democratic institutions,” Kirby said in the strongly worded statement.
“We are particularly concerned by changes that favor one individual over the principle of democratic transitions.”
Kirby called on Rwanda to respect the right to freedom of expression and to protest — “the hallmarks of true democracies.”
Kagame was elected with some 90 percent of ballots cast both in 2003 and 2010 and he had said that the outcome of the referendum would determine whether he continued in office.
“You have asked me to lead the country after 2017. Given the importance you ascribe to this matter, I can only accept,” he said in a televised New Year address.
“You clearly expressed your choices for the future of our country. The process allowed us the time to make certain that the proposed changes had merit and wisdom,” said Kagame, who described national unity as “unshakably strong.”
The referendum followed more than 60 percent of voters signing a petition calling for the drafting of constitutional changes that would allow Kagame to stand again.
Both houses of parliament are dominated by his Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF).
His supporters maintain that Kagame, an English speaker from the Tutsi ethnic group targeted in the genocide by Hutu majority extremists, is not an autocratic figure but a beacon of stability who has overseen economic growth.
Several African states have recently lifted or tried to lift constitutional bars to multiple presidential mandates.
Such was the case in neighbouring Burundi, which descended into bloodshed in April when President Pierre Nkurunziza announced his intention to run for a controversial third term in a July election that he went on to win.