President Paul Kagame’s selling point is that he is the man who rebuilt Rwanda after the genocide of 1994, which killed close to a million Rwanda Tutsis and moderate Hutus. Last week, Kagame won a landslide election that will keep him in power for another seven years. He has been in power for sixteen years heading the Rwandan Patriotic front (RPF), which started out as a liberation front and is today the ruling party of Rwanda. Kagame won an incredible 93 percent of the votes cast in last week’s election. In the 2003 election, Kagame had won 95 percent of the votes. There were no doubts that he would triumph so overwhelmingly in an election that had very few, if any strong candidates to oppose Kagame. Several opposition parties had been refused the permission to participate in the elections, while there were at least three attacks against critics of the government.
Those who support President Kagame point at things he has done for the country since coming to power 16 years ago. The Associate Press (AP) quoted a voter, Ignace Habumugisha, after casting his ballot, as saying that “Kagame has done a lot for the country like development and reconciliation. There has been a lot of changes in Rwanda”, in his view, adding that “everything was destroyed in the country. He has rebuilt the country”. Xan Rice, writing for London’s Guardian newspaper, said that assessment was not far from the truth. “Since his rebel army ended the genocide in 1994, Kagame’s government has been lauded for its high work ethic, empowerment of women, attempts to spur the economy and the lack of corruption”. Furthermore, the international donor community regards Rwanda as very accountable and one of the most efficient in the developing world. Rwanda, under Paul Kagame and his RPF, is regarded as one of the safest countries on the African continent today. Given where Rwanda came from, that is an important achievement which seems to resonate with the people of the country.
But President Paul Kagame also runs one of the most authoritarian regimes on the continent; in the run up to the August 9 election, his government banned two newspapers as well as arrested journalists and opposition politicians. However, Rwandans often justify the methods of the government, arguing that there are constant threats to the stability of the country. There have been four grenade attacks in the capital, Kigali, this year, which have wounded a number of people. Government supporters also remind critics of the long history of ethnic disturbances and the 1994 genocide as justifications for the authoritarian style of the president. The editor of the Kigali-based Rwanda Focus newspaper, Shyaka Kanuma, told The Christian Science Monitor, that the election result suggested that Rwandans were either happy with Kagame’s government, or they are so traumatized by the bloodshed arising from the 1994 genocide, that they have chosen to stay with the stability which Kagame has presided over in the past 16 years.
Kanuma, who counts himself a supporter of President Kagame, said that the past 16 years have allowed a breathing space for the country to rebuild trust amongst the ethnic groups, reform the economy, root out endemic corruption, build infrastructure, attract investment, create jobs as well as making Rwanda a place safe enough to raise a family. “Just the fact that people are able to walk peacefully in all parts of the country is an achievement. It would be superhuman to sort out the root causes [of ethnic hatred] in just 16 years, and it would be a lie to say that it is all gone. But the tension is considerably less. People do live together”; according to Shyaka Kanuma. But there is a deep culture of fear in Rwanda. Critics of the regime say that the authoritarianism which stifles dissent, might very well be planting the seeds of instability, which Kagame is said to have eradicated. Carina Tertsakian, a senior researcher on Rwanda for Human Rights Watch, said “what kind of stability is being built, when people can’t express their opinions”. Her work permit to report from Rwanda was rejected by the government and was given a day to leave Rwanda.
Similarly, Kagame has clamped down on independent political parties; and ahead of the last election, two parties were denied the permission to register. These are the Democratic Green Party and the FDU Inkingi; a third political leader and prospective presidential candidate, Victoire Ingabire, was charged with promoting a genocide ideology. The vice president of the Democratic Green party was found murdered on July 14, while three weeks before the politician’s death, one of Rwanda’s last independent journalists (most have already fled into exile, following government banning or legal action) was murdered outside of his residence. So while over five million voters went out to peacefully cast their votes in an election in which candidates enjoyed freedom of movement and assembly, the Commonwealth Observer Group led by Doctor Salim Ahmed Salim, however said “some limits” were placed on freedom of association and participation. The Group called for “more space or open, responsible debate” amongst politicians and in the media in the future.
The report added that “we understand the terrible legacy of the past and the consequent caution as the country moves forward”. Dr Salim said further that “however, we are also cognizant as to what is required for Rwanda to forge ahead as a pluralistic democracy, enjoying the associated freedoms and rights. Many freedoms and rights are provided for in the existing legal framework, but there remain problems in the implementation and practice…” The fact that all four presidential candidates came from the ruling coalition “meant there was a lack of critical opposition voices”. Salim said further that the exclusion of the opposition parties, that had faced “either legal or administrative problems”, was “a concern”. The New York Times on the eve of the election talked of how the votes were “bringing to light another Rwanda, an almost polar-opposite Rwanda, in which people speak of widespread repression and deep unease with Mr. Kagame’s leadership. There have been troubling signs within the military that Mr. Kagame’s inner circle is even having doubts”.
The paper spoke of several Rwandans interviewed who spoke of the “enormous pressure” on them to register to vote, contribute to Kagame’s campaign as well as attend rallies. There are reports of people who have lost their jobs or been jailed on spurious charges for not supporting Paul Kagame. Interestingly according to The New York Times, unlike other African generals turned presidents, like Sudan’s Omar el-Bashir or Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni, who were troop commanders, Kagame has his roots in military intelligence. According to the paper, Kagame “remains infatuated with data and spreadsheets, and if his choppy dance moves on stage are any indicator, he is a bit of a geek”. It is clear that Kagame has “choppily” danced his way into another seven years in the saddle as Rwanda’s president, indicating that he will still be around for some years to come. What might be comforting about it all, is that he told an interviewer on Aljazeera television last weekend, that he will not change the Rwandan Constitution at the end of his new tenure, in the next seven years; Africa and the world should hold him to that promise.