Rwandan Election: Doubts About the Poster Boy

Rwanda’s president Paul Kagame, long the darling of western donors, is widely expected to win August’s presidential polls, the second since the 1994 genocide. But is his success down to pure popularity, or because of an apparent crackdown on voices of dissent?

Rwanda’s president Paul Kagame, long the darling of western donors, is widely expected to win August’s presidential polls, the second since the 1994 genocide. But is his success down to pure popularity, or because of an apparent crackdown on voices of dissent?

Paul Kagame stands at a podium in an open-air stadium in Rwanda’s capital, Kigali, where terrified thousands sought refuge from the men with the machetes as the killing started exactly sixteen years earlier.

It is Genocide Memorial Day, April 7, 2010, and the president is talking about turning grief to strength and determination. So far he has spoken mostly in Kinyarwandan, his nation’s language, but without warning he switches to English.

What he says next is clearly directed at the suited dignitaries representing the world’s diplomatic missions, the donors who together pump roughly $700million into his country annually, or a little less than half its budget.

‘Political space, freedom of expression, press freedom, who are these giving anyone here lessons, honestly?’ Kagame asks, softly, seemingly genuinely puzzled, as applause breaks out behind him. ‘These Rwandans…are as free, as happy, as proud of themselves like they have never been.’

On the surface, Kagame is a poster boy for the west’s aid policies, an African leader who stamps on corruption, who uses international help to educate children, treat the sick, repair roads and boost business.

Former United States President Bill Clinton last year recognised his ‘public service’ with a Clinton Global Citizen Award. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair is an unpaid and enthusiastic advisor to his government. Blair’s successor, David Cameron and senior members of the British Conservative party have for the last four years spent part of their summer recess building schools across Rwanda, and cosying up to its President.

So, why, at an event charged with the memories of sixteen years ago, is Kagame appearing to bite the hands that help feed his people? The reason is another date, August 9, when Rwandans vote in only their second democratic presidential election since the genocide.


In the lead-up to polling, a series of ugly events has focused the international spotlight on Kagame in a way that has never happened before. He suspended two popular independent newspapers, Umuseso and Umuvugizi, described by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists as ‘the only critical media voices left in the country’.

A week later, Victoire Ingabire, head of the opposition Unitied Democratic Forces, returned from exile in Holland and was promptly arrested and charged with denying the genocide, among other indictments. She has been bailed, but is under house arrest. Her American lawyer, Peter Erlinder, was arrested too, also accused of genocide denial, and only released on medical grounds after three weeks.

A second presidential hopeful, Bernard Ntaganda, is in prison awaiting trial on four charges, including terrorism. A Human Rights Watch researcher was expelled from the country over alleged visa irregularities.

Only three opposition parties have been allowed to nominate presidential candidates. They are accused of at best being strategically soft on Kagame’s ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front, at worst, being its proxies. ‘There is nothing we can do, we have supporters, we are ready to contest the election, but we cannot because we cannot register,’ said Frank Habineza, leader of the Democratic Green Party of Rwanda.

Most seriously, a reporter from one of the banned newspapers, Jean-Leonard Rugambage, was shot dead outside his house on the evening of June 24.

Earlier in the day, a story he had written appeared online, alleging Rwandan security force involvement in the apparent assassination attempt of a disaffected army general – and former ally of Kagame’s – in South Africa.General Kayumba Nyamwasa, who reportedly fled Rwanda earlier this year afraid for his life, is expected to survive his injuries.

Two other army generals have been arrested in Rwanda, one for corruption, another for immoral conduct. Both were accused of links to a series of mysterious grenade attacks which killed one person and risk frightening-off tourists, who supply the largest share of the country’s foreign exchange earnings.

The vice-president of the opposition Democratic Green Party of Rwanda was found dead near his abandoned car on July 15, in what authorities said was a robbery. But his Green party colleagues immediately voiced suspicions that this too was a political killing. Kagame’s government has angrily denied any involvement in the deaths or shootings.


‘It is strange. Why, if he has all this support, will he not allow opposition and then trounce them at the polls,’ asked a Kigali-based European diplomat. ‘Clearly all this other stuff is not the kind of press we were expecting out of Rwanda in the run-up to the elections.’

Certainly not, agreed US President Barack Obama’s point-man for Africa, Assistant Secretary of State Johnnie Carson. In testimony to the US House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Africa, he said: ‘The political environment ahead of the election has been riddled
by a series of worrying actions taken by the Government of Rwanda, which appear to be attempts to restrict the freedom of expression.’

Carson’s comments came as something of a pleasant surprise to those frustrated at a lack of international pressure on a leader who, they felt, was being allowed to run his nation like a dictatorship.

‘Carson’s statement was significant, and encouraging,’ said Carina Tertsakian, the Human Rights Watch staffer whose Rwanda visa was cancelled. ‘Sadly so far we have seen very little will on the part of western donors to deal with this issue, we’ve seen nothing like that coming out of the UK, for example, which is by far the biggest European donor and main supporter of the Rwandan government. We hope for more [international pressure], but we’re not seeing it yet.’

But this is exactly the kind of attention that irritates Kagame that prompted his puzzled statements on Genocide Memorial Day. Much of the concern, from human rights organisations and media freedom advocates, centres on the accusation that the government uses the charge of denying the genocide as a political tool to silence critics.

Britain’s new coalition government has said it is watching the run-up to Rwanda’s election closely. Speaking to The World Today during a visit to Nairobi, Andrew Mitchell, the International Development Secretary, said Britain was Rwanda’s ‘good, but candid, friend’ and that he had raised concerns publicly and privately with the government in Kigali.

‘There are real issues about ethnicity in a country which saw over eight hundred thousand people murdered principally by machete and single shot in ninety days,’ he said.

‘You have an incredible legacy to balance between the desire of the survivors for revenge and the rights of the Hutu people to live in peace. I think we in the west should be respectful of that very difficult situation in arriving at conclusions about how the Rwandans handle it.

‘I’m not saying that the restriction on political space should go unchallenged, far from it. But I think that they are entitled to be cut quite a lot of slack in addressing ethnic issues which have the power to be deeply destabilising in a country with Rwanda’s history.’

From holding an iron grip on a generally supportive military, the same army which he led from exile into Rwanda to stop the genocide sixteen years ago, Kagame is now facing dissent among some senior officers.

There are accusations that political patronage is spread too thin. Or that control of privatised state assets is being passed to too small an inner circle.

But critics claim, discuss this and the strong arm of the state will find you. Further, they question the long term sustainability of what is, in essence, the world’s first real experiment in post-genocide state reconstruction.

Kagame’s unspoken theory is that if people are richer, they are less likely to fight because they will have far more to lose.

But that is not proven, and what if another seven years of firmly keeping the lid on dissent means that, come the next election, the pot is boiling and ready to explode?

‘It shouldn’t be us raising these issues, but as a Rwandan, what can you do’, asks Tertsakian. ‘As soon as you say anything, you are arrested and accused of genocide ideology, or threatened with it, or forced into exile.’

That is to entirely miss the point, counter Kagame’s supporters. ‘For Rwandans, guarding against genocide ideology is a matter of core national security,’ said Andrew Wallis, an advisor to Kagame’s government and author of Silent Accomplice: The Untold Story of France’s Role in the Rwandan Genocide.

‘Kagame feels that if you have a western-type full freedom of expression, that will allow revisionism, genocide denial, and that can lead to genocide itself. It’s still too soon since 1994. The feeling is, give the guy a break.’


And Kagame’s record – human rights concerns aside – is impressive. A country utterly on its knees sixteen years ago, where neighbours had turned on neighbours, teachers on pupils, churchmen on congregations, is now among Africa’smost successful.

Since Kagame was first democratically elected – privately saying his models for how to run his country were South Korea and Singapore -economic growth has averaged above eight percent, and this year the World Bank named it as the world’s best business reformer.

Kigali aims to become a regional hub for conferencing and the service industry. Broadband internet cables are snaking up and down the hills.

Primary schooling is now free, extra teachers are being hired, new universities planned. Subsistence farmers – still eighty percent of the eleven million population – are advised on modern techniques and organic fertilisers.

Rwanda became only the second non-Anglophone country – after Mozambique – to join the Commonwealth last year, and Kagame has come to something of a rapprochement with the French, whom he long accused of favouring the Hutu genocidaires before and during 1994’s horrors.

Both moves are aimed at broadening Rwanda’s business partnerships. Beijing is being courted, but is unlikely to be as big a player as elsewhere in Africa because Rwanda has few minerals.

So, it is clear that Kagame will win re-election this year. For many Rwanda-watchers, the more fascinating contest will be the next presidential polls, in 2017. The president is unlikely to stand again, but as yet there is no clue as to his successor.

‘The question is whether Rwanda is ready for a Western-style democracy, and the answer at this point probably is no,’ said Wallis. ‘He has been called many things, but one is for sure: Kagame is a man of immense vision, and that vision is being impressively implemented. Why must outsiders keep pushing their theories of how to run a country onto Rwanda?’

‘Give him another seven years to bequeath a country where everyone’s too busy making money to risk anything like 1994, and then, perhaps, that will be time for true multipartyism. It’s far from sure, though.’

Mike Pflanz, Correspondent, East, West and Central Africa, Daily Telergaph, in Nairobi


Author: ellyakanga

I am Eleneus Akanga. Welcome to my blog about my experience as a Rwandan journalist and all that comes with the trade in East Africa. It's been a great journey so far but very challenging at times. Join me, let's get cracking!

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