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Rwanda election: Why did Kagame's image tank this year?

President Paul Kagame's international image has morphed in recent months from model, pro-business African leader to iron-fisted strongman. But his tight control on dissent is nothing new.

By Laura SeayGuest blogger / August 9, 2010

President Paul Kagame, leader of the Rwandan Patriotic Front, attends an Aug. 6 rally ahead of today's presidential election, in the capital Kigali. Rwandans voted whether to grant him a second seven-year term to the strong-handed former rebel who has masterminded the reconstruction of the central African country since the 1994 genocide.

Finbarr O'Reilly/Reuters

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Rwandans vote today, and there is little reason to expect that the polls will be anything other than peaceful, orderly, and calm. Nor is there reason to believe that Paul Kagame won't win a resounding victory, giving him another seven-year term in office. According to the country's constitution, this should be his final term in office.

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It's been interesting to watch global opinion on Kagame shift over the course of the last year or so. Was it only last year that Time ran a breathless Rick Warren Time 100 tribute to Rwanda's president? That piece demonstrates quite a contrast with the international media's view of Mr. Kagame today, with pieces questioning his democratic credentials and authoritarian style, wondering if the RPF had a role in several murders and assassination attempts, and debates on the wisdom of unquestioning Western support for the regime.

I'm not sure what prompted this shift. Quite a few observers have claimed that Kagame and the RPF seem to have gone off the rails in the last few months. But that's not really the right way to look at it. Very little has changed in the way Rwanda is ruled. Authoritarianism has been the modus operandi in Rwanda since the genocide. Allegations of human rights abuses were widespread in the years immediately following the genocide. The Congolese have been complaining about Rwanda's extracurricular activities in the Kivus for years.

The difference, it seems, is that the world has taken notice. Whether that's because the United Nations identified Rwanda's major role in recent conflicts in the Kivus or because a new generation of reporters was less likely to believe everything the RPF told them or because Twitter and the blogosphere make the free and open exchange of information easier, I don't know. But more balanced coverage of Rwanda is a welcome change for those of us who've been watching the region for a long time.

Devil or saint? Or both?

Every time I write about Rwanda, I brace for a barrage of wild comments and hateful emails from various sides of the Rwanda debate. Some of these commenters are in Rwanda; others are in the diaspora, mostly in London, Paris, Brussels, and Washington. They allege all kinds of things – that Kagame is a sociopath, that he's a saint, that I'm shilling for the RPF, that I'm shilling for the FDLR, that Kagame can do no wrong, that Kagame can do no good, that I'm a racist for calling out Kagame, that anyone who thinks anything good about Kagame is delusional. Not all, but many of these comments come off as pretty irrational, based more on feelings than fact.

Here's the thing: Kagame is a politician. He is neither all good nor all bad. He is not an angel, he is not a demon. Like most politicians, he wants to stay in power. In a country with still-weak institutions, a traumatic past, and a dangerous neighborhood, Kagame has taken steps to maintain his power that are well outside the norms of democratic governance. He has restored stability and grown the country's economy at an astonishing rate, while trying to move past a devastating genocide that was primarily directed against members of his own ethnic group. He has also overseen the perpetration of major human rights abuses, both in Rwanda in the years immediately after the genocide, and, to a much greater extent, in Congo/Zaire, during the wars and through support of the RCD-Goma and the CNDP.

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