A former child refugee, Paul Kagame was once a hero to the West, feted for helping to bring Rwanda’s bloody genocide to an end.
But with allegations of repression, violence and politically-motivated murder dogging his rule, the military and political leader’s international reputation has suffered. Undaunted, the Rwandan leader is standing for re-election on Friday.
Seventeen years into his presidency – and with the prospect of as many as 17 more to come – there seems little doubt Kagame will claim victory again come polling day.
“Some people have said that the result of the election is a foregone conclusion. They are not wrong,” Kagame said at a rally in Ruhango district, in Rwanda’s Southern Province, as the campaign kicked off on July 14.
“Rwandans made their position clear in 2015,” he told crowds of supporters, referring to the 2015 referendum in which 98% of voters backed changes to the constitution, allowing him to seek a third, fourth and fifth term in office – and potentially remain in post until 2034.
Childhood spent in exile
Kagame, who turns 60 this year, had experienced the impact of the Tutsi-Hutu division which threatened to tear his country apart early: he was brought up in exile in neighboring Uganda following an earlier violent uprising in 1959.
His leadership credentials were forged on the battlefield, first as part of Yoweri Museveni’s army which overthrew the regime of Milton Obote in Uganda.
After serving as Museveni’s intelligence chief, he led the armed wing of the Rwandan Patriotic Front into Kigali to halt the 1994 genocide, in which almost a million Tutsis were murdered by rival Hutus, and up to two million people fled the country.
Once in power, first as vice president and defense minister, and then from 2000 as president, Kagame – a Tutsi himself – pursued those responsible for the genocide across the border into the Democratic Republic of the Congo (then known as Zaire), eliminating many of them.
In the years following the genocide, Rwanda’s military clout belied the nation’s size, helping to topple Mobutu Sese Seko in the DRC and bring Laurent Kabila to power.
After Kagame fell out with the DRC’s new leader, Rwandan troops shifted their allegiance, backing rebels who were trying to overthrow Kabila. They were later accused of plundering the DRC’s precious minerals – a charge the military denied.
Kagame was also accused of arming anti-government militias such as the M23 rebels in eastern DRC. The Rwandan leader denied any involvement.
Three opponents ruled out of race
At home, Kagame is credited with modernizing a nation once at war with itself: the streets are clean, you will see no vagrants, the internet works, plastic bags are banned, and he gives cattle to the poor.
Perhaps most importantly, he has erased the bitterly divisive terms “Hutu” and “Tutsi” – nowadays, the only accepted identity is “Rwandan.”
Those numbers suggest an atmosphere of plurality and a tolerance of dissenting views, but look again: Nine of the parties have backed Kagame, and many media outlets’ coverage of the election campaign has focused solely on the President, offering only his viewpoint.
And while the country boasts the highest proportion of female lawmakers in the world – 61% of seats in Rwanda’s parliament are held by women – there was no place for a woman on the presidential ballot.
Diane Shima Rwigara, 35, had hoped to run for election, but within days of announcing her plans to stand against Kagame, nude photos of her – which she says were photoshopped – began to circulate on the internet.
The Rwandan Electoral Commission later ruled that women’s rights activist and Kagame critic Rwigara had not collected enough signatures to support her candidacy. It accused her of conspiring to forge voters’ signatures, and listing dead people among her backers.
Rwigara says “those are false allegations. The ID numbers released by (the) NEC are different from the ID numbers we submitted to the commission.”
“If the Rwandan Patriotic Front is so loved … why is it that when someone like me decides to run for the presidency, they do all in their power to prevent it?” she asks. “Why are there soldiers all over the place?”
Rwigara says that while Kagame has been good for the country in the past, Rwanda needs a new president to lead the nation into the future.
“After the genocide, the country needed a strong man as a leader to pull the country together,” she says. “But that way of leading us is no longer serving us – on the contrary, it is suffocating us.”
‘Peace, stability, but not democracy’
With Rwigara and two other candidates ruled out of the contest by the electoral commission, Kagame’s only opponents in the race for the presidency are independent Philippe Mpayimana, a former journalist who has spent much of his life in exile in Europe, and Frank Habineza, of the Democratic Green Party.
Habineza believes his party, founded in 2009 is growing fast. He says campaigning against the incumbent has been difficult at times, “some people prevented people from coming to our meeting” early in the campaign.
“We asked for a venue to do our campaign and we were sent to a cemetery – we had to suspend our campaign because we could not work from a graveyard,” he explains.
He says the situation stabilized after the party complained to the Ministry of Local Government and to the police, prompting the local government to take action, issuing a warning to district mayors and local authorities.
Like Rwigara, Habineza concedes that Kagame’s rule has had some benefits, but says those are outweighed by the challenges the country still faces.
“One thing we know is that he brought peace and stability to Rwanda, but not democracy,” he says. “He failed on democracy and that is my role. He was a former rebel leader, so he has been ruling the country like a soldier.”
And that is the dilemma Kagame faces. If – or, when – he wins on Friday, he must convince his critics that he knows another way to rule than the one that has caused both his people and his international backers so many concerns.