By JEFFREY GETTLEMAN and JOSH KRON
Simon Maina/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
He has packed recent rallies with 100,000 people screaming, “It’s you! It’s you!” And Rwandans have a lot to shout about: new roads and health clinics; millions of dollars of foreign investment; broadband Internet; even national health insurance, a small miracle in this poor, tiny, overcrowded country where the top natural resource may be the few hundred gorillas left in its misty mountains. Mr. Kagame’s spectacled face dominates Kigali, the capital, through countless posters and billboards. “Choose Peace” is his slogan.
The three other presidential candidates, all currently serving in the national government, are hardly seen. They are lucky if a few hundred people show up at their rallies. Kigali’s ubiquitous motorcycle taxi drivers have made their preference clear: the stickers on their bikes read simply: Paul.
But the election is bringing to light another Rwanda, an almost polar-opposite Rwanda, in which people speak of widespread repression and deep unease with Mr. Kagame’s leadership. There have been troubling signs within the military that Mr. Kagame’s own inner circle is even having doubts.
Several Rwandans recently interviewed said that they were not free to vote against him and that government officials down to the village level had put enormous pressure on them to register to vote; contribute some of their meager earnings to Mr. Kagame’s campaign; and attend rallies.
“Even if you sing, you don’t feel it in your heart,” said one man, who would give only his first name, Aloys, for fear of retribution. He said that police officers forced him to attend a recent rally and that he knew many people who had lost their jobs or been jailed on bogus charges for not supporting Mr. Kagame.
Many Rwandans have learned to keep quiet. Few expect protests or turbulence from this election. People here are fully aware of what has happened to some critics of the government, especially recently.
In the past six months, a leading opposition figure and her American lawyer were arrested. Other popular opposition candidates were denied a chance to run for the presidency. A dissident general was nearly assassinated in South Africa. An investigative journalist who wrote about the assassination attempt was shot in the head just hours after his story was posted on the Internet. And an opposition leader was killed and found dead along a river, his head nearly severed.
Mr. Kagame’s government denies any involvement. The president himself is getting increasingly prickly. For years, he was lionized by the likes of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair; he remains close to executives at Google, Costco and Starbucks. But the perception of his leadership is changing, the verdict becoming more mixed. Western rights groups are ratcheting up the pressure, saying that Rwanda’s development is coming at the price of liberty.
Mr. Kagame responded to the rights critics at a recent rally, saying they should “go and hang.”
Mr. Kagame is a bit different from the typical African general-turned-president. Unlike, say, Omar Hassan al-Bashir of Sudan or Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, military men who developed their charisma in the field commanding troops, Mr. Kagame’s specialty was military intelligence.
It was as an intelligence officer that he rose through the Tutsi-led rebel army, which trained in Uganda and eventually pacified Rwanda in 1994, after more than 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were slaughtered by Hutu death squads. Mr. Kagame remains infatuated with data and spreadsheets, and, if his choppy dance moves on stage are any indicator, he is a bit of a geek.
He has been the power behind the government since 1994, and people here credit him with resurrecting Rwanda.
“Why wouldn’t I vote for him?” said Samuel Bikorimana, a newspaper seller. “There’s peace and work. Life keeps getting better.”
Erasing ethnic divisions has been one of Mr. Kagame’s most passionate goals. He has urged Rwandans not to identify themselves as Hutu or Tutsi but simply as Rwandan. Just in case he is misunderstood, anyone who uses the words Hutu or Tutsi in an offensive way can be charged with “divisionism” or “genocide ideology” and imprisoned.
But many of the tensions between Hutus and Tutsis have not gone away. Several Hutus interviewed in the past week complained bitterly that Tutsis monopolized top government positions and the economy, even though Rwanda is thought to be around 85 percent Hutu and 15 percent Tutsi. They also said that Mr. Kagame had never taken responsibility for the reprisal killings of Hutus at the hands of his rebel army.
This is an extremely delicate subject. The official government position is that some Hutus were killed but that the Tutsi-led army did not organize or participate in reprisal massacres, though several independent analysts have claimed exactly that.
On Sunday, Patrick Karegeya, a former Rwandan Army colonel and confidant of Mr. Kagame who is now in exile in South Africa, said that Mr. Kagame’s army had hunted down political opponents and massacred civilians and that Mr. Kagame was “the one who perpetrated them.”
“I was part of the machinery,” Mr. Karegeya said in a telephone interview. “People need to know what happened.”
Rwandan officials have dismissed Mr. Karegeya’s assertions, calling him a criminal and a terrorist. But either way, it seems that dangerous rivalries are brewing within what used to be known as one of Africa’s most disciplined, most cohesive armies. Mr. Karegeya recently called for armed revolution in Rwanda and is working closely with Faustin Kayumba Nyamwasa, a former army chief of staff who also fled to South Africa and was nearly killed in June.
Many analysts say Mr. Kagame’s main concern is not the election or political opponents stirring Hutu discontent, but threats from within his Tutsi-dominated inner circle, which, once the election is over, could rise to the surface.