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.

Finbarr O'Reilly/Reuters
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.

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.

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.

Kagame is a brilliant military tactician and is a public relations genius. He is incredibly skilled at telling influential people what they want to hear. He has a serious problem in that he's lost control of the narrative about his country and his person. He has a more serious problem in that the RPF is beginning to fragment over his leadership and degree of control.

To me, these are facts. The specifics (how many people died, where and how exactly they died) are up for debate; we will never know how many people were killed at Tingi-Tingi or Kibeho, just like we'll never know the names of everyone who died in Kibuye. But it's hard to have discussions on these topics in a forum like this, because even facts are up for debate, even among well-educated, well-informed commenters like the ones this blog is fortunate to have.

Need for rational debate

I think about this a lot. Why do so many debates about Rwanda almost immediately descend into chaos, with two sides talking past one another, not agreeing on a narrative or on the terms of the debate?

I suspect it might have something to do with the trauma so many Rwandans, including those in the diaspora, experienced over the course of the last 20 years. That's not to say that "being Rwandan makes you irrational," but rather to raise an important question about the limits of reconciliation when you've experienced horror beyond what most of us can imagine. If I'd watched members of my family be slaughtered or had to flee my country or lost my savings as a result of genocide or war, I'd probably have a hard time evaluating the situation with a fair eye to both sides of the story, too. And I'm not sure what trade-offs I'd be willing to make in the name of stability.

I don't know how you get past that kind of trauma, or if it's even possible. But I do know that Rwanda desperately needs an open and free arena in which all issues can be peacefully discussed. Labeling dissent as "genocide ideology" won't solve this problem, and many other RPF initiatives don't seem to be convincing most that ethnicity in Rwanda doesn't exist.

Combining stability with freedom

Much of the debate over Rwanda's future has been framed in terms of a choice between stability and development or freedom and anarchy. That's exactly the way the RPF wants the discussion to proceed; their claim that freedom will result in another genocide justifies repression in the name of maintaining stability and the regime's impressive economic growth record. It would be mistake to think that many, many Rwandans don't see their choices in the same terms.

But the clock is running out on Kagame's style of authoritarianism. The international community has clued-in to his style, and while I'm sure the lens of attention won't be so sharply focused on Kigali after today, the tensions we've seen bubble up over the course of the last year aren't going to go away. The likelihood of violence there is higher today than it has been at any time in the last decade. It would be an unspeakable tragedy if Kagame's rule ultimately produced just the sort of violence he's worked so hard to prevent.

Rwandans need the right – and the space – to determine their country's destiny. I'm among those who believe that freedom and development are possible, side-by-side, and that allowing the one will make the other stronger. Here's hoping that one day, Rwanda's people are allowed to choose both. I'm just sorry that they weren't allowed to do so today.

--- Laura Seay is an assistant professor of political science at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Ga. She travels frequently to Central Africa and blogs at Texas in Africa.

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