Paul Kagame's Rwandan Patriotic Front has won much credit for rebuilding the country after the 1994 genocide, but political violence and suppression continue
Xan Rice in Butare
The sun is still low and the city is spotless. Women sweep the streets anyway. Red, white and blue ribbons have been wrapped around poles and arches, the colours of the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF).
In a few hours the party leader, President Paul Kagame, whose earnest face peers down from a giant billboard, will briefly pass through Butare on the campaign trail, before exiting down a road so steep that farm-strong men must push their bicycles uphill. At the bottom of the valley there is a small bridge and a river and a pair of pied crows darting overhead. A tranquil scene. A crime scene.
On the morning of 13 July, a blue Toyota pickup was found here. Its windscreen was smashed. The 61-year-old owner of the car was missing. Andre Kagwa Rwisereka was the vice-president of the Democratic Green party, an opposition movement that had been refused permission to contest Monday's presidential election.
|The Body Of Andree Rwisereka|
Taken alone, the incident would have been disturbing – especially in a country normally considered so safe. But this was not the first government critic to die suspiciously.
In late June one of the country's last independent journalists, whose newspaper had been banned in April, was gunned down in the capital, Kigali. He had reportedly been investigating the non-fatal shooting in Johannesburg a few days earlier of Rwanda's former army chief of staff, who had fled into exile.
Although the authorities have denied any involvement, the murders and attempted murder have cast a shadow over an election already compromised by the government's refusal to allow any genuine challenger on to the ballot.
The attacks have also shaken the faith of Rwanda's regional and western allies, who have repeatedly praised Kagame in recent years for his efforts in transforming the country since the genocide of 1994. "We really thought this country was moving in the right direction," said a western diplomat in Kigali. "But what has happened this year calls into question the judgment of senior leaders here."
The reasons for lauding Rwanda and offering large sums of aid – Britain gives £55m a year – are easy to understand. By the time the RPF, then a Tutsi-led rebel force, ended the slaughter 16 years ago, about 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus had been killed on the orders of Hutu extremists. Rwanda was in ruins. Slowly, but with great purpose, the new government set about rebuilding the country and encouraging reconciliation.
A construction boom has transformed Kigali into a modern capital. The infrastructure, especially roads, has been drastically improved. Tourists have poured in. Improvements in health and education are beyond dispute.
The long working hours of government ministers shock foreign civil servants. Corruption is negligible compared with Rwanda's neighbours.
There are long-running blackspots: the army's negative role in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, for example, and the lack of civil liberties. Still, by the end of last year, with Rwanda just admitted to the Commonwealth, the overall picture was optimistic.
But as in the runup to the last election, in 2003, developments this year have been overwhelmingly negative. Two opposition groups hoping to contest the presidency – Rwisereka's Democratic Green party and FDU-Inkingi, headed by Victoire Ingabire – were prevented from registering as political parties. Ingabire, a controversial Hutu politician who returned from the Netherlands in January after a long absence, was charged under laws relating to genocide ideology. So too was Bernard Ntaganda, the leader of a third opposition group that was broken up from within, who remains under arrest.
Instead of a genuine contest, the presidential race is between Kagame and three candidates from parties allied to the government whose collective challenge is so small you could visit Kigali and not realise they were even running.
"The election is a symbol to try to show there is democracy," said a local NGO worker who, like virtually all critics in the country, has been spooked by the murders and insisted on anonymity for her own safety.
"It would be better for the ruling party to have a simple nomination and tell us: 'This is your president.'"
Freedom of expression has all but disappeared. The two most popular independent newspapers, Umuvugizi and Umuseso, both critical of the government, were suspended for six months in April. Carina Tertsakian, senior researcher for Human Rights Watch, who was forced to leave the country in April, said that while there are still extreme sensitivities in Rwanda related to the genocide, the authorities were using it as an excuse for unrelated repression.
The murders are the most troubling development, and the government's response has convinced few people. After Rwisereka's death in Butare, police said the motive was robbery. They arrested Thomas Ntivugurizwa, who was seen with Rwisereka on the night he disappeared, claiming that he had booked into a hotel under an assumed name. But the hotel registry shows he used his real name. After five days, Ntivugurizwa was released. Contacted for comment, he said: "I do not feel safe enough to talk at this time."
Like Rwisereka, the former army chief of staff, Faustin Kayumba Nyamwasa, had also become an outspoken critic of the government after a public falling-out with Kagame. Authorities in South Africa, where he was shot while in his car, have ruled out robbery as a motivation. "We have made that very clear to Rwanda," said a diplomatic source in South Africa. Today South Africa recalled its ambassador to Rwanda "for consultations".
In the case of the journalist Jean-Leonard Rugambage, who was shot dead outside his house in Kigali on 24 June, police say it was a revenge attack related to the genocide – a theory his colleagues dismiss. "He was scared and was supposed to come to Uganda the next day," said Didas Gasana, editor of the suspended Umuseso newspaper, who fled to Kampala in May after receiving threats. "There is no way the government can distance itself from this murder."
The Rwandan authorities have now advanced an alternative theory for the three attacks, with foreign minister Louise Mushikiwabo this week blaming "a diaspora element – some of them involved in the genocide".
Those who dispute this believe it has more to do with internal rivalry in the RPF, which controls large parts of the economy, than with Tutsi-Hutu tensions. Rwisereka was a Tutsi, as are Nyamwasa and Gasana. Frank Habineza, the president of the Democratic Green party, which he founded last year, is also Tutsi, brought up in Uganda, like Kagame and many of his closest allies. He joined the RPF youth movement when he was still in primary school.
Habineza said: "I've been threatened and asked, 'Why are you fighting us? We paid your school fees.' The problem is not ethnicity. It's democracy."
But when it comes to the ballot box ethnicity is still a very real concern for the government, some observers say. Power in the RPF remains concentrated among Tutsis, who constitute 15% of the population, with Hutus accounting for most of the rest.
"If you look at the economy, the Rwandan on the hillside is better off than at any time in the country's history," said the western diplomat.
"But can Kagame trust the voters not to vote along ethnic lines? I don't think he can."