With few strong opponents running against him, there was never much doubt that Rwanda President Paul Kagame would be reelected for an additional seven-year term. Today, electoral commissioners announced that Mr. Kagame had won the Aug. 9 election with a staggering 93 percent of the vote.
Kagame’s authoritarian style – his government has banned two newspapers and arrested journalists and opposition leaders in the run-up to the election – may rub Western governments and human rights activists the wrong way. But it's a style that many Rwandans often justify, pointing to what they see as the constant threat of instability, such as today's grenade attack in the capital, Kigali. More than a dozen people were wounded in the blast, according to initial reports. It's the fourth grenade attack in the capital this year.
Such disturbances – together with the country's brutal history of ethnic massacres and the genocide of 1994 – justify Kagame's tight control of society, his supporters say.
Shyaka Kanuma, editor of the Kigali-based newspaper Rwanda Focus, says the lopsided election results suggest that Rwandans are either happy with Kagame’s government, or they are so traumatized from the bloodshed of 1994 – a genocide by the previous government that killed 800,000 Rwandans – that they don’t want to change what they have.
“The election is really about Rwandans voting to keep things the way they have been,” says Mr. Kanuma. “They don’t want any kind of disturbance. They just want the stability that they have.”
What kind of stability?
Supporters of the Kagame government – and Kanuma counts himself as one – say the past 16 years of stability have allowed the country breathing space to rebuild ties among often warring ethnic groups; to reform the economy and root out endemic corruption; to build up Rwanda’s infrastructure, attract investment, and create needed jobs; and to help make Rwanda a place safe enough to return and raise families. Critics say that authoritarianism comes with a heavy cost, and by stifling dissent, it could be planting the very seeds of instability that Kagame is credited with eradicating.
“On stability, I would ask what kind of stability is being built, when people can’t express their opinions,” says Carina Tertsakian, a senior researcher on Rwanda for Human Rights Watch. In April, Ms. Tertsakian’s second work permit to report from Rwanda was rejected, and she was given a day to leave the country.
Kagame, a former rebel leader and a member of the Tutsi minority that bore the brunt of the 1994 genocide, may be viewed with suspicion by the Hutu majority, says Tertsakian, “but what you are seeing now are increasing numbers of Tutsis who are feeling bitter and let down by the RPF (Kagame’s Rwandan Patriotic Front party).”
Kagame’s clampdown on independent political parties has not made things easier, Tertsakian says. Ahead of the elections, Rwandan officials denied two opposition parties – the Democratic Green Party and the FDU Inkingi – permission to register, and charged a third prospective presidential candidate, Victoire Ingabire, with promoting a genocide ideology. Crackdowns on individual journalists and independent newspapers have also created what Human Rights Watch calls a culture of fear.
Yet on election day itself, everything went smoothly. The East African Community – a regional grouping that includes Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi – declared the elections to be free and fair, and the European Union considered Rwanda to have “relative stability,” and thus decided not to even send an election observer mission.
Kanuma, the editor, says it’s ridiculous to assume that even a no-nonsense leader like Kagame could have completely eradicated the root causes of ethnic hatred that led to the Rwandan genocide of 1994. But after that living hell, “just the fact that people are able to walk peacefully in all parts of the country is an achievement,” he says. “It would be superhuman to sort out the root causes in just 16 years, and it would be a lie to say that it is all gone. But the tension is considerably less. People do live together.”