UPDATE 5:50 p.m. EDT: The White House expressed its "disappointment" with Rwanda Saturday afternoon:
"The United States is disappointed that a referendum was called on short notice to amend the Rwandan constitution and introduce exceptions to term limits. 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.
"The United States continues to be concerned by long-standing restrictions on peaceful assembly, association, and free expression in Rwanda. We urge the Government of Rwanda to enable the full and unfettered exercise of these fundamental freedoms. ...
"The peaceful transfer of power from one leader to another is the hallmark of stable, prosperous democracies."
Rwandan President Paul Kagame, who officially assumed office more than a decade ago and has dominated the country for 21 years, could continue to rule until 2034 after residents across the African nation voted to lift constitutional term limits Saturday, Agence France-Presse reported. While the electoral commission says the results are still provisional, it said 98.4 percent of voters approved the change with returns from all districts.
The change in the constitution would allow Kagame to run in 2017 for a third term of seven years. At the end of that term he could then run for another two more terms of five years each.
"We have seen the will of the people,” Electoral Commission Chief Kalisa Mbanda said Saturday, AFP reported. “It's clear that what the people want, they can achieve.”
The constitutional referendum was announced on Dec. 8, catching the ire of the European Union, which said not enough time was allowed to debate the issue. The U.S. State Department has also condemned referendum, saying in September it did not support people in power changing a constitution purely for their own political interests, Reuters reported.
Many have praised Kagame for rebuilding Rwanda after the 1994 genocide in which 800,000 people were killed. Rwanda has continued to receive billions of dollars in aid from foreign countries, including the United States and the United Kingdom.
For two decades, Kagame’s party, the Rwandan Patriotic Front, has run the country. Since it took power, Human Rights Watch has reported numerous violations, including arbitrary arrests, killings, torture, threats and harassment.
— Agence France-Presse (@AFP) December 19, 2015
The opposition Democratic Green Party, says it was stopped from trying to campaign against the constitutional change, the BBC reported. Civil turmoil has raged in other African countries where changing presidential term limits have been contended, such as neighboring Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo, but similar protest hasn’t been seen in Rwanda.