An amendment to the constitution would allow Rwandan President Paul Kagame, 58, to run for an exceptional third seven-year term in 2017
Kigali (AFP) - Rwanda will hold a referendum next week on a constitutional amendment that could see veteran leader Paul Kagame rule until 2034.
Kagame has run Rwanda since his ethnic Tutsi rebel Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) army 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 proposed constitutional amendment allows Kagame to run for an execeptional 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.
The government said the decision to hold the referendum next week was taken at a cabinet meeting late Tuesday approving, "the presidential order determining the date and purpose of the referendum." Rwandans in the country will vote on December 18, with those living abroad voting on December 17.
Tuesday's cabinet meeting was chaired by Kagame.
The United States and European Union have warned that the move undermines democratic principles in the central African country, prompting Kagame to criticise "other nations" for interfering in his country's internal affairs.
"They tell us we should have the right to make our own choices, but our choices then become defined as manoeuvring," he said in quotes relayed by the ruling party's Twitter account.
"Our actions do not correspond to the wishes of other nations," he said.
The issue of long-serving rulers clinging to power has recently unleashed turmoil in Africa, where many heads of state have been at the helm for decades.
In neighbouring Burundi, there has been widespread violence and bloodletting after its leader bulldozed through a controversial third term, while street protests led to the ouster of Blaise Compaore, who had ruled the west African country of Burkina Faso for nearly three decades.
- Response to 'popular demand' -
The Rwandan Senate last month passed a constitutional amendment that reduces presidential terms from seven to five years and maintains the two-term limit but makes an exception for Kagame, allowing him to run in 2017 for a third seven-year term, at the end of which the new rules come into force.
After those seven years, he could then potentially run for another two terms of five years each, which would extend his rule to 2034.
The amendment is expected to pass easily in the referendum.
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, while lawmakers said that consultations showed just 10 people nationwide were against it.
Kagame won elections in 2003 and 2010 and under the current law is due to step aside in 2017.
Although he has won praise for rebuilding Rwanda's shattered economy, Kagame's foes accuse him of stifling criticism in the media and in politics.
Aides have insisted that any bid for a third term would be in response to the "popular demand" that he stay in power.
"Kagame has not stated whether he would seek another term should the law allow him to do so, only telling a meeting of the governing Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) last Sunday that he would take a stand after the referendum," the pro-government New Times newspaper reported Wednesday.
The European Union last week warned passing the constitutional changes at "undermines the principle of democratic change of government," days after the US ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, said Kagame must set "an example" for the region.
"We expect President Kagame to step down at the end of his term in 2017," Power said.