KIGALI (Reuters) – Rwandan President Paul Kagame said on Wednesday he did not want a third term in office but had to bow to entreaties from his people, who were not ready to say goodbye to the architect of the nation’s recovery from a 1994 genocide.
Speaking at the World Economic Forum on Africa in the capital, Kagame said he was aware that changing the constitution to allow him to run again would draw international criticism but had little say in the matter.
The changes, which technically allow Kagame to stay until 2034, were approved in a December referendum by a 98 percent majority that Rwanda’s tiny opposition and Western diplomats said was suspiciously high.
“By the way, I didn’t ask for this thing,” Kagame said of the third term during a panel discussion chaired by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, one of Kagame’s most high profile international supporters.
“I was actually trying to tell my people: ‘You know what, there’s room – can’t you find someone else? You need to take a risk and look for someone else,'” he continued.
“And they kept saying ‘No. We are not ready to take risks. We want you to stay.’ I said, ‘But I’m having difficulties staying.'”
The United States, a major donor, led the criticism of Kagame’s plans to seek re-election next year, saying it was another example of an African leader changing the democratic rules in order to extend his time in power.
Neighbouring Burundi, which shares a history of ethnic fighting with Rwanda, was plunged into chaos a year ago when President Pierre Nkurunziza sought a third term, which the opposition denounced as unconstitutional.
Kagame has overseen a remarkable economic recovery from the 1994 genocide, in which 800,000 ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus were butchered by Hutu extremists.
However, rights groups and political opponents – many of whom now live in exile – say this has been at the expense of civil liberties.