Rwanda's Paul Kagame has won a second term as president. Having ruled the war-torn country since 1994, and claiming — quite rightfully — to have ushered in a period of peace after civil war and genocide, he had been expected to win another election. But beneath the calm that prevails in Rwanda is the fear that Mr. Kagame is another despot in waiting, who will stay in power after his new term expires — despite constitutional prohibitions.
If Mr. Kagame wishes to be remembered as the man who truly restored order, prosperity and justice to Rwanda, he must work within the legal system and respect the limits on the powers of the president.
Mr. Kagame grew up as a refugee in Uganda, having fled Rwanda as a small child. He rose through the ranks of the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF), a Tutsi-led military force that was fighting the Hutu-majority government in Rwanda. In April 1994, a plane carrying the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi crashed on its approach to the airport of Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. The plane was brought down by a missile: Who fired it is disputed to this day.
The crash triggered a murderous rampage by Rwanda's Hutu majority against the Tutsi minority and moderate Hutus. It is estimated that 800,000 to 1 million people — about 20 percent of the population — were killed in 100 days. The RPF eventually prevailed in the fighting and seized control of Rwanda. Mr. Kagame became defense minister in the new government, and was considered by many the real power behind President Pasteur Bizimungu. Mr. Bizimungu was deposed in 2000 and Mr. Kagame claimed the presidency.
The country went to the polls three years later, and Mr. Kagame claimed a landslide victory with 95 percent of the vote. In the seven years since, Rwanda has become one of Africa's success stories. Hutus and Tutsis live in peace (although Hutu guerrillas continue to harass the Kigali government from neighboring states), the country is considered one of the least corrupt on the continent, and its economy has been growing more than 8 percent per year on average (although it dropped a bit during the recent global recession). GDP has doubled since 2005. Mr. Kagame is a darling of foreign investors and funds continue to flow into the country. Women's rights have been promoted and they have claimed unprecedented status.
Unfortunately, in recent years human rights groups have become concerned about Mr. Kagame's increasingly autocratic tendencies. Independent newspapers have been closed, and one journalist was murdered after a published article he wrote charged that the government had backed the attempted assassination of a former official.
In the runup to the election, Human Rights Watch decried a political environment characterized by "increasing political repression and a crackdown on free speech." Opposition leaders were banned from the election; the deputy leader of one opposition party was murdered. The three men who remained on the ballot were not considered real alternatives to Mr. Kagame: Critics labeled them "sham candidates." Mr. Kagame has denied any ties to the violence and dismisses any charge that his party or the government is responsible.
Not surprisingly, Mr. Kagame easily won a second term. Final results of the election showed that he won 93 percent of ballots cast, near the level of his 2003 victory. The question is what will he do with that mandate.
Mr. Kagame's commitment to peace is difficult to challenge. He recognizes that the scars from 1994 have not healed and extraordinary tensions lurk beneath the surface of his country. The ethnic mix remains combustible, with Hutus — who make up 85 percent of the population — complaining that they are excluded from many jobs and positions of authority. Mr. Kagame urges fellow citizens to consider themselves Rwandans, rather than Hutus or Tutsis. There are laws that allow individuals to be charged with "divisionism" or "genocide ideology" if they use inflammatory rhetoric.
The temptation to misuse that power is great — and human rights groups assert that Mr. Kagame has succumbed to it. He counters that Western notions of democracy are not suited to Rwanda — at least not yet. While he is right to insist that every country should tailor its politics to its particular circumstances, that logic can also be a cover for the creep of authoritarianism.
The test for Mr. Kagame will come during his second term. He has seven years to work on genuine reconciliation and institutionalize a truly democratic, tolerant and just political system. He must fight the temptation to identify the state with himself. If he is to be a real founding father of a modern Rwanda, he must create a political system that transcends the embodiment of one man or the party that backs him.
Mr. Kagame has gotten off to a good start, but it is the prospect of the curtain coming down on his tenure — the country's constitution forbids him from running for a third term — that could tempt him to rewrite the nation's charter. That is a temptation he must resist.