Rwandans set to choose prosperity over human rights in 'formality' presidential poll
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More than 6 million voters are registered to cast their ballots in Rwanda Friday in a presidential election that incumbent longtime leader Paul Kagame is widely expected to win.
Ever since the 1994 Rwandan genocide saw him sweep into the capital, Kigali, at the head of a disciplined fighting force, Kagame has dominated his country’s political scene and never lost an election – or, for that matter, received less than 90 percent of the vote.
In the 2010 election, he won 93 percent of the vote -- down from the 2003 poll tally of 98 percent.
Kagame himself believes the outcome of Friday’s vote is a foregone conclusion. At a campaign rally in July, Kagame told tens of thousands of his supporters that: “The day of the presidential election, August the 4th, this is just a formality.”
His opponents -- little-known Democratic Green Party of Rwanda candidate, Frank Habineza, and even lesser-known independent, Philippe Mpayimana -- are not expected to pose much of a challenge.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. The country’s constitution had a two-term limit until a 2015 referendum, roundly criticised by human rights groups, yielded another Rwanda-level result: 98 percent of voters approved an amendment that would enable Kagame to run in the 2017 election and could see him retain the post until 2034.
In neighbouring Burundi, when President Pierre Nkurunziza flouted his term limits in 2015 to obtain a third term in office, he incurred the wrath of the international community with the EU immediately suspending aid to the impoverished African nation. There was no such response when Kagame took a page from the African strongman’s textbook. “During the constitutional amendment process, the EU expressed its disapproval, but this was not followed by action,” explained Filip Reyntjens from the University of Antwerp in an interview with FRANCE 24, noting that it was yet another instance of the international community’s double standards.
Omnipresent incumbent, absent opposition
On the campaign trail, posters of the wiry, 59-year-old Rwandan president were omnipresent. In the lead-up to Friday’s vote, Kigali saw almost daily rallies, with top musicians warming up the crowds of supporters sporting T-shirts emblazoned with their candidate’s face and waving flags in the red-white-and-blue colours of the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) party.
In sharp contrast, the two opposition candidates who were allowed to run were virtually invisible.
When FRANCE 24 caught up with independent candidate Mpayimana days before the polls, he was addressing an impromptu street corner gathering of a handful of onlookers. “The authorities don’t understand what is an opposition and certain members of the ruling party have acted beyond their authority,” said Mpayimana.
Kagame’s other challenger, Habineza, is the leader of the only tolerated opposition party in Rwanda. But "it represents a sort of soft opposition,” said Reyntjens, noting that, “Opponents know the risks they take."
Habineza attempted to run for the 2010 presidential election, but his party was unable to register for the vote. Weeks before the election, the almost-decapitated body of the party’s vice-president was found in a swamp -- the latest of several government critics who were murdered before the poll. The culprits were never found and the Rwandan government has denied any involvement in the murder.
After fleeing with his family to Sweden, Habineza returned to Rwanda in 2012. While he ran his 2017 campaign on a platform of respect for human rights and decreasing poverty, Habineza confessed, in an interview with AFP, that his party was “doing everything we can to avoid ending up in prison" -- or worse.
A challenger crushed in a fake sleaze campaign
The most serious challenge to Kagame, Diane Rwigara, saw her presidential hopes crushed in a sordid smear campaign that included threats, intimidation and corruption allegations.
In May 2017, shortly after she declared her candidacy for the upcoming election, photoshopped nude images of Rwigara appeared online in what she called, “the regime’s attempt to discredit me and taint my public reputation.”
The daughter of a businessman and former RPF financier who died in a car accident, Rwigara said her supporters were attacked as they attempted to collect signatures needed for her presidential candidacy.
In the end, the country’s National Election Commission disqualified her candidacy claiming she failed to gather the 600 signatures required, “despite the fact that I had submitted more than 1,100 signatures. Only 572 signatures were deemed to be admissible,” explained Rwigara in a Washington Post op-ed published Wednesday. Rwigara claims her family business and bank accounts have since been frozen on fabricated corruption allegations.
In a report published last month, Amnesty International warned that, “Two decades of attacks on political opponents, independent journalists and human rights activists have created a climate of fear in Rwanda.”
Muthoni Wanyeki, Amnesty International's Regional Director for East Africa, the Horn and the Great Lakes, said the repression had to be viewed in a historical context. “Killings and disappearances in 2017 need to be placed in the context of many years of similar violence for which no-one has yet been held to account,” said Wanyeki.
Working the international genocide guilt
Despite the widespread repression, Kagame continues to be a popular leader in this nation of 12 million people.
At an RPF campaign rally in Kigali ahead of Friday’s vote, an old woman, gaily bedecked in the party colours, told FRANCE 24, “I came to support Paul Kagame because he stopped the genocide. He brought peace and he provides houses for the poor.”
For his admirers, Kagame remains the man who brought an end to the genocide by Hutu extremists that saw around 800,000 Tutsis and Hutu moderates slaughtered.
More than two decades later, the Rwandan leader is still drawing on what Reyntjens calls a “genocidal credit” to silence any opposition. "Since the genocide, the international community has suffered a great guilt, which has been fully exploited by the authorities. Paul Kagame constantly reminds Westerners: 'Where were you in 1994?’”
The genocide guilt worked wonders on Kagame’s most influential international supporters, including former US President Bill Clinton and ex-UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, who has hailed Kagame as a "visionary".
The Rwandan economic miracle – or is it?
In the international aid and development assistance circuit, Rwanda's economic "success story" is touted as a model for the developing world.
Over the past 20 years, Kagame’s “economic miracle” has seen the tiny African nation manage an average 7 percent annual growth rate. Speaking at the Harvard Business School during his fourth visit in six years, Kagame noted that, “Help has been coming at different levels and continues to come.” But, he added, “You do not want anybody to come and deal with your problems. Even if you were to get help, it would not be long term and it is not sustainable over time.”
The landlocked, primarily agrarian country however continues to depend on foreign aid, which constitutes between 30 to 40 percent of its national budget, according to the World Bank, and Rwanda is still far from the prosperity of Singapore or South Korea, models that Kagame frequently cites on his lecture tours.
But critics frequently slam Rwandan authorities for cooking up and plumping the country’s economic data. In 2015, for instance, FRANCE 24 reported on a rift between the UK-based international development consulting firm, Oxford Policy Management (OPM), and Rwandan authorities over the methodology and findings of economic indicators.
Nevertheless, Kagame has overseen over two decades of stability and growth. "In the area of health, there is undeniable progress: life expectancy has increased, infant mortality and maternal mortality have declined, even if the figures are difficult to verify," said Reyntjens, noting that "in contrast to political governance, bureaucratic and technocratic governance is good in Rwanda, unlike other African countries."
The question then is whether another five years of Kagame in office will benefit his tiny nation. "There are pros and cons," summarises Reyntjens. "There should be a debate in Rwanda, but people are afraid to speak... even abroad." And so, Rwandans get set for another election and another term for the man who has dominated the country’s political history for over two decades, and who, if all goes well, could dominate it for nearly two more decades to come.