White House urges Rwanda's Kagame to respect term limits

Rwandan President Paul Kagame has accused Paris of complicity in the 1994 genocide (AFP Photo/Cyril Ndegeya)

Washington (AFP) - The White House on Saturday urged Rwanda's President Paul Kagame to respect existing limits on his term in office, after a voters in a national referendum approved sweeping them aside.

"The United States is disappointed that a referendum was called on short notice to amend the Rwandan constitution and introduce exceptions to term limits," a White House statement said.

"While we commend the people of Rwanda for peacefully exercising their civic rights, we regret that the arrangements for the referendum failed to provide sufficient time and opportunity for political debate on the merits of the proposed provisions."

Election officials citing national referendum results said Rwandans had overwhelmingly voted to change the constitution to allow Kagame, 58, to potentially rule until 2034.

But the White House said any move to prolong his hold on power would be to the detriment of Kagame's legacy.

"President Kagame, who in many ways has strengthened and developed Rwanda, now has an historic opportunity to enshrine his legacy by honoring his commitments to respect the term limits set when he entered office," the statement said.

"By doing so, President Kagame would establish a credible foundation for democracy in Rwanda, reinforce the substantial progress that has been achieved towards sustained peace and prosperity for all Rwandans, and set a laudable example not only for Rwanda, but for the region and the world."

The statement added that Washington is also concerned about other areas where democratic freedoms have been abridged in Rwanda.

"The United States continues to be concerned by long-standing restrictions on peaceful assembly, association, and free expression in Rwanda," the White House said.

"We urge the government of Rwanda to enable the full and unfettered exercise of these fundamental freedoms as the country moves toward local elections in 2016, presidential elections in 2017, and parliamentary elections in 2018."

Kagame has run Rwanda since his ethnic Tutsi rebel army, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), ended a 1994 genocide by extremists from the Hutu majority, when an estimated 800,000 people were massacred, the vast majority of them Tutsis.