Kigali – Rwandans abroad were voting on Thursday in a referendum to amend the constitution allowing President Paul Kagame to rule until 2034, a day ahead of the main vote inside the country.
The constitutional amendment, passed by parliament last month reduces presidential terms to five years and maintains a two-term limit, but makes an exception for Kagame.
It would allow him to run for a third seven-year term in 2017, at the end of which the new rules come into force and he will be eligible to run for a further two five-year terms.
“The voters began voting abroad at 07:00 local time,” election commission spokesman Moise Bukasa said. Some 28 000 people are registered to vote overseas, while another 6.4 million are eligible to cast their ballots across the nation in the main election on Friday.
Kagame has run Rwanda 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.
Voting on Thursday was taking place in embassies and consulates around the world.
Mucyo Rutishusha, a Rwandan diplomat in India, posted on Twitter photographs of a line of voters waiting to cast their ballot, while the government posted images of voters elsewhere, including in Kenya and Ethiopia.
“Members of the Rwandan diaspora will set the pace as the national referendum kicks off to decide the constitutional amendments,” Kigali’s pro-government New Times newspaper wrote in an editorial on Thursday, saying it expected the changes to pass.
“Initial indications show that the whole exercise will be a wrap-up in favour of changing the constitution,” the paper added, saying people will choose whether, “they stick with a winning team and formula or should they sail in uncharted waters.”
The United States and European Union have slammed the proposed consitutional changes, warning they undermine democracy in the central African country.
But the New Times made clear the outcome of the referendum would not be changed despite criticism.
“When official results are released over the weekend, the world should watch and listen attentively and learn that there is no better template, no arm-twisting or threats, can defeat the will of the people,” the newspaper said.