Rwandan ruling party backs bid to allow Kagame third term

An amendment to the constitution would allow Rwandan President Paul Kagame, 58, to run for an exceptional third seven-year term in 2017 (AFP Photo/Zacharias Abubeker) (AFP/File)

Kigali (AFP) - Rwanda's ruling party have backed calls to change the constitution that would allow strongman Paul Kagame a third term in power as president, reports said Tuesday.

Over 3.7 million people have signed a petition calling for a change of Article 101 of the constitution, which limits the president to two terms, the New Times newspaper reported.

Kagame's Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), after a weekend meeting of some 600 top members, issued a statement calling for constitutional change.

"Considering the wishes of many Rwandans and those of members of the RPF, we support the proposed amendment of Article 101 of the constitution and any other provisions in the law that need modification," the statement read, according to the New Times.

Kagame, 57, has been at the top of Rwandan politics since 1994, when an offensive by his RPF ethnic Tutsi rebel force put an end to a genocide by Hutu extremists that left an estimated 800,000 mostly Tutsis dead.

As minister of defence and then vice president, Kagame was widely seen as the power behind the throne even before he took the presidency in 2003, winning 95 percent of the vote. He was re-elected in 2010 with a similarly resounding mandate.

From the trauma of genocide, he has been painted as a guarantor of stability and economic development, earning praise from donors -- and his supporters say many in Rwanda view the prospect of his departure as a step into the unknown.

Kagame says the decision is for the "Rwandan people".

"I have not asked anyone to change the constitution and I have not told anybody how or what to think about 2017," Kagame said in April.

The move comes amid a wider controversy in Africa over efforts by leaders to change constitutions in order to stay in office.

Neighbouring Burundi has been in turmoil since in April when President Pierre Nkurunziza announced his bid to stand for a third term in polls next month, a move branded by opponents as unconstitutional and a violation of a 2006 peace deal that ended 13 years of civil war.