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.

Rwandan Patriotic Front

The Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) was formed in 1987 by Tutsi refugees who had fled along with their families to Uganda due to ethnic violence.

In 1990, RPF's armed wing the Rwandan Patriotic Army (RPA) invaded Rwanda and fought against troops loyal to the then President Juvénal Habyarimana, triggering the Rwanda civil war.

RPA's leader Fred Gisa Rwigyema was killed shortly after prompting the RPA to retreat and regroup under Paul Kagame. The warring sides engaged in peace negotiations and reached a ceasefire, which was broken when Habyarimana died in a plane crash on 6 April 1994, among suspicions that he had been killed by the Tutsi.

The death of the president sparked the genocide, during which the RPF fought against Hutu extremists and those loyal to the interim government, which had ordered the killing of the Tutsi. The RPF took control of the country in July 2014 and Pasteur Bizimungu became president. He stayed in power until 2000, when he was succeeded by Kagame.

The role of RPF during the genocide is controversial. The group defeated Hutu extremists who were carrying out the genocide, but it has also been accused of killing, sometimes indiscriminately, Hutus and Tutsis.

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."

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.

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.

I don't know what could happen in Rwanda, but I know that not every Rwandan wants to change the constitution.
DGPR's President Frank Habineza

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."

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."