Paul Kagame
Rwandan President Paul Kagame said he is open to debate on whether to change the constitution to allow third term Reuters

Two members of the Rwandan Parliament and a member of the East African Legislative Assembly (EALA) have resigned for reportedly disagreeing with the ruling party's decision to change the constitution to allow President Paul Kagame to run in the 2017 election.

The Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) announced that it approved an amendment to article 101 of the country's constitution after some 3.6 million people – about 72% of Rwanda's electoral roll – signed a petition asking the Parliament to change the document, which restricted the president to running for two seven-year terms.

However, some reports claimed that part of the population was forced to sign the petition by officials.

RPF member Connie Bwiza Sekamana resigned earlier in June after allegedly being summoned by the Criminal Investigations Department, the East African reported.

However, sources told the East African that she was dismissed after criticising the government for its decision to change the constitution.

Chamber of Deputies Giovanni Bushishi and EALA member Celestin Kabahizi also resigned from their positions. It is not yet clear why they abandoned their posts, but sources told East African the catalyst was their disagreement over amending article 101.

Changing the constitution will undermine peaceful transfer of power

Earlier in May, the country's main opposition party Democratic Green Party of Rwanda (DGPR) filed a lawsuit to the Supreme Court attempting to block the change to the constitution, arguing that article 193 concerning amendments of the document does not allow the number of terms to be changed, but only their lengths.

DGPR's President Frank Habineza told IBTimes UK: "We don't support the change of the constitution, but we are not surprised [that this happened] because many people have been protecting this move."

Habineza also said that there are allegations that some people were forced to sign the petition, but added that DGPR does not have any evidence to prove this.

"Changing the constitution will not only undermine the democratic process but also the peaceful transfer of power," he said, adding that since the kingdom of Rwanda – which ended when King Kigeli V was overthrown in a 1961 coup d'etat resulting in a referendum that abolished the monarchy – the non-democratic successions of leaders had led to deaths and unrest.

It is not yet clear whether Kagame will back the RPF's decision. Earlier in April, the president said he did not support changes of the constitution, but he was open to debate.

"In a democratic society, debates are allowed and they are healthy," he said.

Kagame also urged politicians not to coerce people into signing the petition. "If the allegations that some people have been forced are true, that's a concern and you should also have that concern," he said.

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 this year's election.

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 – have been accused of committing abuses, such as killings and torture, against protesters.

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, critics have accused Kagame of cracking down on political and press freedoms.

Assistant professor in comparative politics and researcher on sub-Saharan Africa Omar McDoom told IBTimes UK: "The president's [Kagame] popularity is difficult to gauge. While he has delivered social order and rising prosperity, his record on individual freedom and justice lags behind.

"Petitions and quantitative indicators of public opinion are not reliable guides to the true sentiment of the population given the extraordinary ability of the state to monitor society and given how strongly the regime has punished dissent, perceived as disloyalty, in the past. Self-censorship is an issue in a regime which, by all independent measures of democracy, has an authoritarian character."

When asked to comment on possible unrest in Rwanda, Habineza told IBTimes UK: "I don't know what could happen in Rwanda, but I know that not every Rwandan wants to change the constitution."