Tomorrow, Rwandans will be asked to vote on constitutional amendments that would allow President Paul Kagame to run for president again in 2017 – a third term not permitted under the current constitution. The proposed changes would, among other things, reduce presidential terms to five years, renewable only once, after a transitional seven-year term starting in 2017. However, it seems that the clock on terms already served would also be reset, so Kagame would be able to stand for a seven-year term in 2017 (his third), and for two five-year terms in 2024 and 2029. This means that if a majority of Rwandans support the amendments tomorrow, and if Kagame decides to run again, the revised constitution could extend his rule until 2034.

Rwanda's President Paul Kagame attends the opening ceremony of the 24th Ordinary session of the Assembly of Heads of State and Government of the African Union (AU) at the African Union headquarters in Ethiopia's capital Addis Ababa, January 30, 2015. 

© 2015 Reuters

It is more than likely that most Rwandans will vote “yes.” By July 2015, Rwanda’s parliament had received 3.78 million petitions from citizens claiming to support a third presidential term for Kagame. Lawmakers embarked on nationwide consultations, reporting back that most Rwandans supported changing the constitution to enable Kagame to stand again. Rwanda’s parliament approved the amendments in October and November.

On December 8, the Rwandan government announced that a referendum would be organized within 10 days: on December 17 for Rwandans living abroad, and on December 18 in Rwanda. This is a very short time for people to read and comprehend the impact of the constitutional amendments before deciding how to vote. The same parliamentarians who approved the amendments have conducted a campaign to raise awareness about the referendum.

Kagame clearly enjoys considerable public support across the country, but it is difficult to know what many Rwandans really think. The ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) has dominated all aspects of political and public life ever since it ended the genocide in Rwanda in 1994 and has imposed tight restrictions on freedom of speech. Several opposition leaders remain in prison. Dissidents inside and outside the country have been murdered, attacked, and threatened. Pro-government views dominate the Rwandan media, although several private radio stations have broadcast discussion programs on the proposed constitutional amendments.

One of the few voices to publicly oppose the amendments is the opposition Democratic Green Party of Rwanda, which lost a case before the Supreme Court challenging the legality of the proposed changes and encouraged people to vote “no” in the referendum. Several other parties are represented in parliament, but they do not play the role of a political opposition. Some have actively supported the revision process and constitutional amendments.

In many countries where there is limited political pluralism or where opposition parties are fragmented or weak, it falls to civil society groups to hold the government to account and to speak out when their leaders cling to power. But in Rwanda, independent civil society organizations are weak, due to years of government intimidation, threats and administrative obstacles. Open expressions of dissent are rare.

Rwandan citizens have the right to air their views and should be able to make a fully informed and free choice on the terms of the constitution, but the current context may not be conducive to them expressing that choice. Even those Rwandans who privately oppose the changes may vote “yes” tomorrow. Alongside pressure or fear of opposing Kagame, self-censorship – prevalent among many Rwandans – may help determine the outcome of the referendum.

As one man told us, “it would be stupid to vote ‘no’ because it won’t change anything.”