By Eleneus Akanga
According to the electoral commission, Rwanda’s elections will be free, fair and more competitive than in 2003 when the current president won 95% of the vote.
And you have to be out of your mind not to see how easily President Paul Kagame will sweep this coming election as well. He is as popular with the locals as he has been tactile with his main opposition. Since campaigns began for the August 9 presidential poll, Rwanda’s iron man has been pulling crowds. He pulled 120,000 at Karongi, 100,000 at Nyamasheke and they will keep coming as he continues his tour.
African president’s have a demi-god feeling about them, they travel with so much pomp and are always very rare to see or approach. They are heavily protected and their imminent arrival in any area is always preceded by so much activity both in intelligence and security. Villages are combed here and there, roads paved and swept and as a result locals get the feeling that someone important is visiting. The strong security presence that precedes these sorts of visits and radio announcements that follow mean everyone gets to know well in time. In the case of Rwanda, like someone put it the other day, failure to turn up at events where a president is scheduled to speak can very easily be interpreted as a sign of disrespect. So attendance is vital, no matter the reason.
While it is hard to differentiate how many people have been turning up to listen, see or hear Kagame speak from those who have been forced to, one thing is certain. Kagame is a popular figure. The question then becomes, is he popular because he is the ruthless man whose lieutenants will haunt you for not attending his rally or is he popular because he has succeeded in making Rwanda a progressive nation – one to envy and look up to by neighbours?
To understand this fact, one has to look at the history of elections in Africa and whether crowds have always reflected the minds and decisions of those in them.
In 2001 while a student at Makerere University in Uganda, I remember seeing large crowds flock to Col Kizza Besigye’s rallies. Besigye or KB as he was popularly known at Makerere took everyone by surprise. At the university freedom square Besigye pulled a record crowd that shook the history of campaigning in Uganda. The mammoth crowd at Makerere which included university students and a number of locals was followed by yet another huge turn-out rally in Mbarara that had Museveni’s campaign make a few changes culminating into the battle of crowds with Ugandan newspapers and radio stations at the time discussing in detail which candidate had more supporters.
Rather than concentrate campaigns on substance and stick to promises as stipulated in the manifestos, the main candidates were themselves pulled into arguments on who had more supporters and whose crowds were bigger. Newspapers started to publish pictures that were intentionally shot to reflect larger crowds – something I see being employed in Rwanda today.
In most parts of Africa, intimidation is part and parcel of the electoral process. If you can’t get the crowds, you may as well get the electoral commission behind you by stuffing it with your cronies. The plan is to make everyone aware that you are the best supported candidate by ferrying as many people as you can to election rallies. They do not have to be from the local area where the rally is taking place. A promise of lunch plus a few buses and locals will be on their feet. Why give up the chance of free lunch when you know well that you might as well go without food for two days.
And for Machiavellians like Kagame, the bigger the crowds, the better the publicity and the higher the chances of convincing anyone of a win. If Kagame wins by 98% after the August 9 election, he with his supporters will be keen at pointing out the large crowds he has been pulling to justify their colossal vote. And of course few, except those who know exactly what has been going on, will refute this seemingly true fact.
There is no doubt Rwanda has made economic progress. The country is interconnected by a good and functional road network, and it continues to post impressive economic growth figures every year. While these achievements make Kagame a good leader, economic prosperity is not an end in itself.
The argument that Rwanda has come from far and cannot be simply allowed to slide back – in the name of full-fledged democracy does not hold water. It will always be viewed as another way by Kagame to maintain a tight grip on events in the country by limiting what can be said and a failure to bring more Rwandans into the political process.
President Kagame will surely win another 7 year term to continue his repression or economic progress whichever way you want to look at it. He has been painted as one of the dynamic leaders Africa has seen and given what he has achieved for his country. His refusal and tactical attempts to avoid competing with genuine opposition in a free and fair elections, even with such popularity begs the question, is he truly that popular?