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Rwandan Opposition Leader Urges a ‘No’ Vote in Referendum

FILE - Frank Habineza, the leader of Rwanda's only opposition political party the Democratic Green Party of Rwanda, speaks to a reporter at his offices in Kigali, Rwanda.

A Rwandan opposition leader is asking Rwandans to vote “no” during Thursday and Friday’s national referendum that would allow President Paul Kagame to run for a third seven-year term in 2017.

Kagame, 58, headed the army that ended the 1994 Rwandan genocide and ousted Hutu extremists from power. He had been Rwanda's vice president and became president himself in 2000 after the resignation of his predecessor.

Frank Habineza, leader and founder of the Democratic Green Party of Rwanda said he believes the current two-term limit would allow the emergence of new leadership.

If the referendum is approved, it would also make Kagame eligible to run for two additional five-year terms.

Habineza said if President Kagame insists on maintaining himself in power it could spark violence similar to what is happening in neighboring Burundi.

“We are asking the people to vote no because we believe that the constitution is better guaranteed if we have a two term limit, and for us to have continuity of security we need to have a peaceful transfer of power. But also we need to have promotion of new talents, new leaders so that we can also have new promises and new development,” he said.

FILE - In this Saturday, Sept. 5, 2015 file photo, Rwanda's President Paul Kagame waves to the crowd before speaking at a baby gorilla naming ceremony in Kinigi, northern Rwanda.
FILE - In this Saturday, Sept. 5, 2015 file photo, Rwanda's President Paul Kagame waves to the crowd before speaking at a baby gorilla naming ceremony in Kinigi, northern Rwanda.

Supporters say it’s not President Kagame who is seeking to perpetuate himself in power but rather the millions of eligible Rwandan voters who petitioned their lawmakers during a nationwide consultative tour to change Article 101 of the constitution.

Habineza said it is not too late for President Kagame to keep his promise that he’s not interested in seeking a third term.

Charles Munyaneza, executive secretary of the National Electoral Commission, said over four million Rwandan voters requested the referendum and the commission is only trying to fulfill its mandate to deliver a free and fair electoral process.

But some critics say the government is wasting money on a referendum when, instead, they could be having a coronation for President Kagame, especially if over four million Rwandans have agreed to change the constitution.

Habineza agreed that President Kagame has brought about some economic and social development since taking office in 2000. Still, he said, it is time for the president to give a chance to a new breed of leadership.

“Of course we have seen tremendous economic progress since. So that one is not something that we will say it’s not happening. And that one is a credit to him. But also there is still a lot to do. For example, poverty reduction. Also, I think 50 percent of the population lives below a dollar and the half,” he said.

He also said Rwanda still has problems with human rights, and restricts the independent media and democracy.

The National Electoral Commission said the ballot asks a single question - one where voters will decide yes or no whether they approve the amendment to change the constitution.

Rwandans living outside the country will cast their votes Thursday while those inside the country will vote on Friday.

The United States and European Union have said that the referendum undermines democratic principles in Rwanda. But Munyaneza said his commission is carrying out the wishes of Rwandans.

Munyaneza told VOA recently Rwandans will be exercising democracy when they cast their vote and decide their future.