It's a hot afternoon in the southern rural district of Nyaruguru. On a dusty clearing overlooked by a hill already swarming with people, tens of thousands of supporters have been gathering since early morning to get a glimpse of their hero. Among them are peasants, pregnant women and toddlers, all wearing the red-white-and-blue T-shirts of the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) and dancing to the rhythm of a famous local singer, Masamba Intore. Suddenly a convoy of black cars appears in the distance. The crowd explodes in cheers of joy when a tall, slender figure slowly makes his way to the podium. Ready for another mass celebration of his uncontested rule of this small African country, the president of Rwanda and former liberation fighter, Paul Kagame, finally appears, greeting his supporters.
Triumphal rallies like this one are becoming a daily routine in the presidential campaign of the Rwandan strongman. On 9 August the RPF leader will seek another seven-year mandate in an election widely seen as a formality. With a huge budget advantage over his three opponents, Kagame is expected to win as smoothly as in 2003, when he gained more than 95% of the votes. The only female among the contestants, Alvera Mukabaramba, has already accepted the inevitable defeat. "Beating Kagame is almost impossible," she acknowledges. "He has done so well for this country, rebuilding it from scratch after putting an end to the bloodiest page in our history."
Sixteen years after the genocide, the fates of Rwanda and the RPF are still deeply connected. The party is credited with having stopped the 1994 massacres in which 800,000 Tutsi were killed by the paramilitary Hutu militias and the former Rwandan army. It has ruled the country since then, constantly strengthening its grip on the society thanks to a policy based on development, order and transparency. But a series of recent disturbing events have highlighted what the RPF might not yet be ready to promote: democracy.
In recent weeks human rights organisations have repeatedly accused the government of dirty tactics and attempts to silence the media and prevent political opponents from competing in the elections. Victoire Ingabire, a politician who recently asked for an acknowledgment of the Hutu sufferings during the genocide, is now under house arrest, charged with denialism, genocide ideology and links with the FDLR, a rebel group based in nearby Congo and made up of former génocidaire troops.
Umuseso and Umuvugizi, two of the main Rwandan tabloids, have been banned for six months for "inciting public disorder" which will prevent them from covering the elections.
At the end of June Umuvugizi's editor, Jean-Leonard Rugambage, was killed in front of his home in Kigali, the capital, by two gunmen. Rwandan general Kayumba Nyamwasa, who had fled the country after an alleged falling out with Kagame, almost succumbed to the same fate when he was shot and seriously wounded in Johannesburg.
"At the beginning we were willing to start a political process. But it seems we are now simply negotiating to save our lives," said Frank Habineza, a former member of the RPF and now the leader of the Democratic Green party of Rwanda. One of the opposition parties that have mushroomed in the past year, the Greens cannot participate properly in the August elections because of police bans on its meetings. On 14 July, the party's deputy president, André Kagwa Rwisereka, was found dead on a river bank close to the border with Burundi, his head almost completely removed from his body. According to Habineza, the two men arrested in connection with the killing were released after a few days in custody. "Kagame is a soldier who never finished the war and never gave up military methods," he says. "He sees criticism as an open threat to his rule".
While Rwandan authorities have denied any role in the killings, RPF insiders concede that the recent bans are suspicious. They might betray the worries of a party afraid to lose control of a society still deemed politically immature after the traumas of genocide. The RPF policy of cancelling Hutu and Tutsi identities and embracing everyone as a Rwandan is widely thought to be working, but will take time. "If allowed to act without restraint, people would still vote along ethnic lines and Hutus would regain power, something we are not ready to accept now," admits a local RPF member who wished to remain anonymous. "Rwandans are voting for Kagame because they don't want problems, but the society remains tense."
Loyal to its president's credo that democracy is an empty box if people are not provided with food and basic services, and conscious that a former Tutsi rebel group cannot yet have a lasting base in a country where 85% of the people are Hutu, the RPF are betting on improving the living conditions of the people, hoping that this will do enough to silence opposition inside the country.
Rwanda is certainly developing fast. "Today everyone here can enjoy free primary education and health insurance," explains Jean Paul Uwizihiwe, a GP in Kigali. "The government even subsidises free anti-retroviral medication for HIV-positive patients. This means that people who would die in almost any other African country can live a normal life."
Rwanda's economy has boomed thanks to foreign investors. Roads and new infrastructure have boosted exports and tourism, while poor rural areas have benefited from loans given to co-operatives and aid programmes including "one cow per family" .
"Efficiency and delivery" are the motto of a political party born and bred according to the military discipline of its leader. Corruption is rare and poorly performing officials are quickly removed from their offices. As a result, Rwanda is one of the few countries where the public sector is more efficient than private industry.
"As in China, democracy will come naturally with the economic empowerment of the people," explains John Rwangombwa, the minister of finance and economic planning. "Our society is still fragile. We can't allow a total freedom of expression when some politicians and part of the society are ready to use the racial card to achieve power."
According to a prominent member of the opposition who asked to remain anonymous, the RPF reasoning has a point. When asked about choosing between Kagame and Ingabire for president, he replies without hesitation. "I would choose Kagame. Ingabire is clean, but she is still supported by scary people linked to the previous regime. They have a bad agenda. They still have the old Rwandan flag in their office. I'm proud to wear the new one."
The shortcomings of the opposition are undeniable, but RPF critics still argue that the party's attitude is making things worse, preventing people from speaking about problems that are bound to resurface. For all the economic development guaranteed by the RPF, the unresolved questions of this country's troubled past still cast a shadow over the future of Rwandans. Many acknowledge that relations between Hutus and Tutsis are slowly improving but remain difficult. They can go out to drink beers and speak about women, cars and football, but some subjects remain taboo, genocide among them.
"Rwandans never tell you what is in the heart," explains Sylvestre Mupenzi, an artist. "We always say that everything is OK, but in reality we are scared and wary. We can't trust each other."
While Tutsis remain understandably bitter towards the perpetrators of genocide, Hutus think it is time to address the killings carried out against them during the civil war that followed the ethnic cleansing.
As a consequence of this endless cycle of guilt, fear and resentment, there remain two paramount needs: peace and security, things that the Kagame administration has provided. But when asked if this country may then need an "enlightened dictator" to solve its problems and continue on the road to recovery, Habineza rejects the option. "It has worked in the first years after the genocide," he admits. "But in the long run, development is not sustainable without democracy.
Africa Great Lakes Democracy Watch
Welcome to Africa Great Lakes Democracy Watch Blog. Our objective is to promote the institutions of democracy,social justice,Human Rights,Peace, Freedom of Expression, and Respect to humanity in Rwanda,Uganda,DR Congo, Burundi,Sudan, Tanzania, Kenya,Ethiopia, and Somalia. We strongly believe that Africa will develop if only our presidents stop being rulers of men and become leaders of citizens. We support Breaking the Silence Campaign for DR Congo since we believe the democracy in Rwanda means peace in DRC. Follow this link to learn more about the origin of the war in both Rwanda and DR Congo:http://www.rwandadocumentsproject.net/gsdl/cgi-bin/library