Paul Kagame
Rwandan president Paul Kagame presides over a climate of repression, according to Human Rights WatchReuters

Many Rwandans have been forced to sign a petition asking the parliament to amend the constitution to allow President Paul Kagame to run for a third term in the 2017 presidential election, according to several commentators and experts on Rwanda.

Article 101

"The President of the Republic is elected for a term of seven years renewable only once. Under no circumstances shall a person hold the office of President of Republic for more than two terms."

Article 193

"The power to initiate amendment of the constitution is vested concurrently in the President of the Republic upon the proposal of the cabinet and each Chamber of Parliament upon a resolution passed by a two thirds majority vote of its members.

"The passage of a constitutional amendment requires a three quarters majority vote of the members of each chamber of Parliament. However, if the constitutional amendment concerns the term of the President of the Republic or the system of democratic government based on political pluralism, or the constitutional regime established by this constitution especially the republican form of the government or national sovereignty, the amendment must be passed by referendum, after adoption by each Chamber of Parliament. No amendment to this article is permitted."

The country's ruling party Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) announced in a statement earlier in June that it accepted the request of the 3.6 million people – around 72% of those on the Rwandan electoral roll – who had signed the petition and thus it approved an amendment to article 101 and "supports that the [constitution]... should be amended".

According to UK-based human rights activist and politician Rene Claudel Mugenzi, the Rwandan government – which, according to Scotland Yard, plotted to assasinate Mugenzi in 2011 – is forcing people to sign the petition to avoid international criticism.

"The Rwandan government does not want to be seen as a dictator government, but on the same side they want to change the constitution and they want to make it as the change is driven by the people, but the reality is that this is a set up," he told IBTimes UK.

"The government knows that the majority of people will not oppose because they have been terrified many times," he said and added that the petition has triggered discussion for an amendment. The parliament will decide whether to have a referendum.

However, article 193 concerning amendments of the constitution does not allow the number of terms to be changed, but only their lengths.

When contacted by IBTimes UK, RPF Vice President Christophe Bazivamo said: "I think it is not possible to force 3.6 million people to sign a petition. People who have signed were actually happy to do so. It's not possible to force people to sign and to also make them happy.

"The population signed the petition because of facts. We achieved goals when it comes to child and maternal mortality. When it comes to security and social economic development, from 1994 until now, the situation has improved."

Rwandans cannot protest because they lack freedom

According to Reporters without Borders, Rwanda's decision to indefinitely ban the BBC – following a controversial documentary alleging the RPF committed war crimes during the 1994 genocide – is part of a plan to crackdown on media in the run up to the 2017 election.

"If you look at reports by human rights organisations, the level of freedom in Rwanda is one of the lowest and there is not freedom of association," Mugenzi said, adding people who criticise the government lose their jobs and are isolated.

Paul Kagame's political career

Kagame became the leader of the RPF's armed wing, the Rwandan Patriotic Army (RPA), as the country had descended into a civil war which then sparked a genocide in which an estimated 1 million people – mainly Tutsi and moderate Hutu – were killed in three months.

In the aftermath of the genocide, Kagame served as vice president and minister of defence until 2000, when he became president after being elected by government ministers and the national assembly.

The RPF became a political party while its armed wing was renamed the Rwandan Patriotic Army (now the Rwandan Defence Forces).

In 2003, Rwanda adopted a new constitution replacing a transitional one, and Kagame was re-elected as president. He won the election again in 2010.

"There might be people who want him to run again, but most of the people do so because of fear."

According to Mugenzi, Kagame wants to run for election in 2017 because he is scared to face the allegations made against him.

He said: "Kagame is the only sitting president in the world with his more than 30 high military officials accused in UN reports of several war crimes.

"He is accused of supporting rebels who were causing chaos in Congo, he is also thought to have ordered the killing of the then president Juvénal Habyarimana. If he gets out of power, he will have to face these accusations. All those things are waiting for him. He has no choice to run again."

When asked to comment about media freedom and allegations of persecution, Bazivamo said: "Why do people think negatively when it comes to Rwanda? People should come and see and discuss with the population face-to-face to discover which is the real situation.

"The population is happy with what has been done. It is not about thinking, I am a witness and I know what is happening here."

Burundi unrest unlikely in Rwanda

In neighbouring Burundi, hundreds of people have been engaged in violent protests after President Pierre Nkurunziza announced he will seek a third term in the 2015 elections.

Protesters accused him of violating the constitution and the Arusha Peace Agreement, which says the president can only stay in power for two terms. Nkurunziza's supporters argue the president's first term should not be counted as he was chosen by the parliament and not by the people in an election as is specified in the agreement.

The Burundian police as well as the Imbonerakure – the youth wing of Nkurunziza's party National Council for the Defense of Democracy – has been accused of committing abuse, including killings and torture, against protesters.

Some international commentators have said it will be unlikely for Rwandans to protest against RPF's decision given Kagame's strong support, mainly stemming from belief in his ability to transform Rwanda into a middle-income country, a goal he committed to achieving by 2020.

However, others have warned Rwandans will not descend to streets to rally as they fear persecution.

"Burundi is very different because there people are protesting, in Rwanda you cannot protest," Mugenzi said. "In Burundi they have freedoms, although the president is strying to hold on to power. in Rwanda you have no freedom."

The economy growth 'myth'

"The story about the economy development is totally a myth," Mugenzi said. "Apart from Burundi [and Somalia], the GDP per capita in Rwanda is the lowest in East Africa. In the 1980s and beginning of the 90s, before the RPF came to power, Rwanda had the highest GDP per capita in East Africa – apart from Kenya. This is just one of the highest propaganda designed by RPF in collaboration with UK and US based PR companies."

However, according to the RPF, the "rapid" economic growth is one of the reasons why people want Kagame to stay in power.

Bazivamo said: "Economic growth has been achieved thanks to the leadership of Kagame. The average growth we achieved from 1995 till 2014 in Rwanda was around 90% as per 2014 estimates.

"If you analyse deeper, you will find that the GDP has grown from 160% to 718% and the population poverty [has decreased] from 77% to 44% in the past five years."