Kigali (AFP) - Rwanda's parliament is to debate changing the country's constitution in order to allow its strongman President Paul Kagame to stand for a third consecutive term in elections in 2017, an official said Wednesday.
The debate, set to take place over the next two months, was prompted by parliament being handed petitions signed by a total of two million people -- or roughly 17 percent of the population -- asking for the constitution to be changed, the head of the chamber, Donatilla Mukabalisa, told AFP.
The announcement comes amid a wider controversy on the African continent over leaders changing constitutions in order to stay in office.
Last year Burkina Faso's former president Blaise Compaore was chased out after trying to stay put, while Rwanda's southern neighbour, Burundi, has been wracked by weeks of civil unrest and experienced a coup attempt over President Pierre Nkurunziza's attempt to do the same.
But Mukabalisa said moves for Kagame to stay in office were different.
"We have received two million requests," she said, explaining that parliament has been receiving a number of what she insisted were spontaneous letters and petitions from individuals, groups or associations.
Kagame, 57, has been at the top of Rwandan politics since 1994, when an offensive by his ethnic Tutsi rebel force, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), put an end to a genocide by Hutu extremists that left an estimated 800,000 of his community dead.
He first served as minister of defence and vice president, and then took the presidency in 2003, winning 95 percent of the vote. He was re-elected in 2010 with a similarly resounding mandate.
Rwanda's constitution, however, does not allow for a third term so it would need to be modified.
Rwandan officials have strongly denied that it is Kagame who is seeking a third term, insisting that the president -- hailed by his supporters as a guarantor of post-genocide security and stability, as well as a champion of economic development -- enjoys popular demand for him to stay.
- Popular demand or theatre? -
According to Mukabalisa, the petitions were the result of this popular demand for Kagame to stay and not because of elaborate machinations by the ruling party.
"It is the people who have taken this initiative," she said. "They were not forced to do so in any way. When they express their wishes, we can see that they are doing so from the bottom of their hearts. It is not something that we dictate."
"If we look at where the country was in 1994 and where it is now, the development has been spectacular," she added.
Mukabalisa said the Rwandan parliament and senate, both of which are dominated by Kagame's RPF, would debate the matter between June 5 and August 4.
But Rene Mugenzi, a Rwandan human rights activists who lives in exile in London, dismissed the petitions as a "stage-managed" ruling party initiative designed to show to the world that Rwanda is undergoing "constitutional change demanded by the people" and that Kagame is not just another African dictator.
"The government has been going to every level of society to get people to sign a petition," he alleged, claiming that Rwandans were being forced to sign or else face the risk of losing their jobs or being socially excluded.
According to Rwanda observers, the RPF's political office gave the green light for public debate on the issue to start in December, with the RPF's network delivering the message that the constitution can be changed.