More than 5 million Rwandans cast their votes today to choose their leader, with current President Paul Kagame – the former Tutsi rebel leader credited with ending the 1994 genocide of more than 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus – expected to be reelected for his second consecutive seven-year term.
Labeled a staunch economic reformer by Western governments, but also called a ruthless dictator by his opponents and by human rights groups, Mr. Kagame is widely expected to win by a landslide, at least in part because several of his opponents have been forbidden from participating and others have been killed in what rights groups and analysts suspect were assassinations.
This is leading some to see Kagame as a destabilizing force in the region, even as he has promoted business and economic growth.
Yet Pacome Bizimungu, a physiotherapy student at Kigali Health Institution, says he voted for Kagame secure in the belief that the former rebel will continue the pro-business policies that have led to more than a decade of steady economic growth.
“He is a strong man, he can perform better than the other candidates,” says Mr. Bizimungu, after casting his vote at Rugunga School polling station in central Kigali. “He has done so many things for this country in terms of economics and reconciliation and we want him to carry on so that he can finish what he started.”
“We make our decision according to the strength of the candidates – there is no issue of ethnicity,” he adds, denying that Kagame favors his own minority Tutsi ethnic group. “We are in a process. We have not reached real democracy yet, but I think this is the first step to democracy.”
The election in the tiny mountainous Republic of Rwanda could hardly be more significant as a signal for how far “real democracy” has spread here, and Kagame’s reelection would have far-reaching effects not just in the East Africa region, but through the continent and beyond.
Seen by the US, Britain, and increasingly by France as a reliable strategic partner in Africa, Kagame would appear to have a secure position. But a string of defections and arrests of top Rwandan military and government officials, and assassination attempts against Kagame’s critics, are starting to leave a bad taste in the mouth of even those African leaders who once voiced their solidarity and support.
Relations between Rwanda and Uganda – former allies in the 1990s – have become increasingly strained because of personal clashes between Kagame and Uganda's leader, Yoweri Museveni. That, in turn, has strained relations with the Democratic Republic of Congo. And South Africa recently recalled its ambassador to Rwanda for consultations, in protest at the apparent assassination attempt on South African soil of a top Rwandan dissident.
Such apparent disregard for democracy and rule of law has analysts questioning the West's continued economic dealings with Rwanda and support for Kagame. “My concern is not what the West has done in Rwanda, it’s what [it] didn’t do, and [how it] didn’t think about the consequences of [its] actions” for not taking a harder line on Kagame's anti-democratic practices, says Henri Boshoff, a military analyst for the Institute for Security Studies in Tshwane, as South Africa's capital of Pretoria is now called.
Small, but strong
Rwanda’s size belies its strength, and the West and many of Rwanda’s backers didn’t anticipate the effects of having a strong, unassailable military ruler in Rwanda on the rest of the region, says Mr. Boshoff.
Rwanda has intervened several times in the civil conflicts of the larger but weaker Democratic Republic of Congo, fueling wars that killed millions in the past decade alone.
Closer to home, Kagame has maintained control by cracking down hard on critics and journalists. By doing so, he may be forcing his opponents to seek other means of expression, including violent ones.
“How long can he keep a lid on the opposition?” says Boshoff. “That’s the question.”