It is a fresh afternoon in Karongi. The scenery is quintessentially Rwandan – soft white mist curling gently over green undulated hills. But with Presidential elections taking place in a matter of days, the incumbent’s campaign machine has made a pit stop at this district in the country’s Western Province.
As a result, it is no ordinary day in Karongi. Everywhere you look, the hill slopes are heaving with young people sporting white caps and T-shirts with the face of the man they have come to see, their President Kagame.
Some are waving the Rwandan flag, others are brandishing cardboard signs with Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) slogans painted on. All are looking towards the stage where the President is speaking. Kagame, a tall and wiry individual, is dressed in a baggy red polo shirt, his rally outfit.
He addresses the audience in a slow, breathy voice, his words frequently interrupted with deliberate caesuras that last several seconds. The mood is upbeat but restrained. The calmness of the atmosphere is slightly unnerving, if not unexpected.
Paul Kagame, a Tutsi, has effectively ruled the country since he first marched on Kigali as the leader of the RPF following the 1994 genocide, in which tens of thousands of majority Hutus massacred 800,000 mostly Tutsi minority Rwandans.
That he will emerge the victor of the elections that will take place on 9th August is a foregone conclusion. Whether his victory will be won fairly has, however, been subject to intense debate.
Carina Tertsakian, a researcher at Human Rights Watch who specializes in Rwanda, claims that there has been foul play in the run up to elections. “In the months leading up to the August elections we really have seen a further crackdown on any form of opposition, dissent or criticism,” she said.
Indeed, opposition parties have been intimidated and harassed and United Democratic Forces (UDF-Inkingi), the most credible opposition to Kagame, have been obstructed from registering. The party’s leader, Victoire Ingabire has been under house arrest since April.
Other parties have sunk into similar quagmires: the Social Party’s leader, Bernard Ntaganda, is in jail, and the Democratic Green Party of Rwanda has been barred from running. Moreover, those opposition parties that have been allowed to run operate with tiny budgets: the Social Democratic Party must take out a loan and the Liberal Party and Party of Progress are working on a shoestring.
The full repercussions of the opposition’s paltry economic resources are even more stark when contrasted with Kagame’s campaign, which is estimated to be worth approximately 1.5 million Euros.
In addition, two newspapers have been shut down, the BBC’s Rwanda service has been suspended, and a handful of the regime critics have been found dead.
“These are not elections,” insists Joseph Sebarenzi, Rwanda’s former President of Parliament, who fled the country in 2000. “Elections pose competition but in Rwanda today you don’t have that competition. These are not elections, but just deception to make sure the international community believe they are.”
According to Kagame’s challengers, such political violence is not a new development born out of the unique pressures of the election period, but easily falls within the general trajectory of political domination that Kagame has relied on to retain power.
The RPF has dominated the government, legislature, and military since 1994. The leader stands accused of having ordered the violent breakup of several Hutu refugee camps and the forced their return to Rwanda in 1995. His regime’s police force and military groups in the arbitrary arrest, disappearance, and believed assassination of thousands of Rwandans from the late 1990s to the present day.
Kagame’s response to such charges against his military arm has an air of helplessness: “You can imagine trying to stand between people who are so seriously aggrieved, and having the desire to settle it because there was no justice infrastructure at that time.”
Furthermore, the election of Kagame in 2003 was seriously marred, according to outside observers. Opposition candidates were threatened or imprisoned. The most credible opposition party, led by ex prime minister Faustin Twagiramungu, a Hutu, was outlawed.
“The people trying to bring new ideas were purged and most of them are in exile and others who are in Rwanda have no choice other than to keep quiet,” says Joseph Sebarenzi.
Kagame’s antagonists assert that integral to the leader’s terror tactics has been the manipulation of memory of the genocide to hold his people hostage to history. Indeed, it does seem that the main discourse that underlies Kagame’s accusations against his political opponents is the often erroneous contention that they are supporters of “genocide ideology.”’
Victims are aplenty. They include the leader of the opposition, Imbagire. She was arrested under charges of genocide ideology, divisionism and terrorism. Other high-profile examples include the PS-Imberakuri’s leader, Bernanrd Ntaganda.
However, Kagame’s supporters insist that Rwanda, which has not yet managed to fully cauterize the wounds of genocide, is not ready for democracy. Alvera Mukabaramba, one of Kagame’s opponents, who has been accused of being a supporter of Kagame and running as Kagame’s opponent in collusion with the leader so that he may claim victory in a carefully choreographed election, promotes such a view: “People who criticize us should understand where we come from. Our democracy is very young. In recent years we have been busy creating a new society,” she defended. “The time will come for us to speak more openly about issues of the past. Now, we have to build our future.”
Moreover, many insist that what Kagame lacks in respect for democracy is made up for in his ability to strengthen the country’s economy. They highlight that Rwanda’s economy has burgeoned at an impressive rate of 6.4% per year since 2001. The streets are clean and the skies are bristling with cranes as high-risers take center stage in Kigali’s center. The economy will probably expand by around 7 percent this year as the government increases subsidies for farmers and the construction industry burgeons. Rwanda was named the world’s most improved country of 2009 by the World Bank. Rwanda is also attracting more foreign investment, which reached $230 million last year. In addition, there has been much discussion of the installation of wireless internet throughout the country, which some have commented will transform the country into the ICT hub of Africa by 2020. There have also been moves to invigorate Rwanda’s banking sector.
Economic development has been the key to Kagame’s strategy of ensuring reconciliation and sustainable peace in Rwanda. In a recent interview Kagame stated, “It will be a long, difficult process – we are under no illusions – and development is really the key. We must create economic opportunity, build a culture of entrepreneurship, get people to take responsibility for improving their lives, rather than putting them in a position where they sit back in their poverty and blame others for it.”