In her days as an active member of the Rwandan Patriotic Front, Eloise Umutoni did her best to show support for Rwanda’s ruling party and its leader, Paul Kagame. As a district-level party cadre, Umutoni was responsible for mobilizing youth in line with the RPF’s development agenda, widely considered to be one of the most ambitious on the African continent. By helping lead various government initiatives, from the monthly communal work program, umuganda, to a campaign to eradicate traditional thatched roof houses, she was the face of the RPF for the young people of her village, a cog in a party machinery that penetrates deep into rural Rwandan life. Come local or national elections, she would dress in the RPF’s red, white and baby blue, extolling the party’s role in Rwanda’s progress, and reminding voters what was expected of them. “I’m the one who told people, ‘You know who to choose,’ ” she said on a recent afternoon. “The RPF is like a family. And everyone understands they’re not supposed to vote against it.”
Yet Umutoni — whose name has been changed to protect her identity — has never quite felt comfortable with her country’s evolution under Kagame, Rwanda’s steely-eyed, rebel leader turned president. On the one hand, under Kagame’s leadership, the country of 12 million has achieved remarkable progress. Since the RPF, originally a rebel movement formed in Uganda by Tutsi exiles, captured power at the end of the country’s 1994 genocide, Rwanda has transformed from a graveyard of a million souls into one of the most orderly and fast-developing nations on the continent. The longer Umutoni worked within the system, however, the more she was disturbed by the government’s methods. There was the constant stifling of opposition; the state’s alleged pursuit of dissidents in exile; the way in which people, knowing that even their neighbors could be spies, would only discuss politics in whispers.
In a national referendum on Friday, voters are likely to approve constitutional amendments that could allow Kagame to remain in office until 2034. In advance of the vote, voices of opposition have been predictably silent. The process of lifting the current term limits, after all, was supposedly initiated by the will of the people. During the first half of 2015, Rwanda’s Parliament says, it received petitions from more than 3.7 million Rwandans — 72 percent of registered voters — requesting a constitutional change that could enable their president to run again after his second term expires in 2017. In a document released before lawmakers approved the constitution’s changes last month, Parliament said it had identified only “about ten” Rwandans nationwide who objected to the amendment.