Rwanda heads to polls but it’s more of a coronation than real contest

Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame casts his vote during a parliamentary election in the capital Kigali on September 16, 2013…. REUTERS

A few days after Diane Rwigara announced she would contest Rwanda’s presidential elections in August, her nude photos turned up on social media. It is not clear who was behind the leak, and whether it was connected to her political ambitions but the incident brought some drama to an otherwise dour contest.

Ms Rwigara is an unlikely candidate. The 35-year-old accountant, she was drawn into the fray after the death of her father, Assinapol Rwigara, in a car accident last year. Mr Rwigara had once been close to the Rwanda Government but had fallen out with the regime at the time of his death. The family continues to suspect foul play.
“Everybody who is Rwandese knows people who have disappeared or who have been killed and the perpetrators of those crimes have never been taken to justice,” Ms Rwigara said during a press conference to announce her campaign.

“I know how it feels to be a victim so that will help me not victimise others.” Some believe the leaked photos have stripped Ms Rwigara of any hope she had but almost everyone agrees that no one has any hope of defeating President Paul Kagame in the August election. President Kagame led the Rwanda Patriotic Army and Front to power in 1994 and has been the de-facto and de-jure leader of the country since.

Initially Mr Kagame was vice president, allowing Pasteur Bizimungu, a Hutu politician and senior member of the RPF, to be president but the real power, then and since, has always been with the incumbent.

Ample evidence

President Kagame’s supporters say he will be re-elected because he is popular and has taken the country forward. There is ample evidence of this: the country is relatively peaceful and stable; the economy is one of the fastest growing on the continent; poverty is falling; health and education indicators are improving and the country has the highest ratio of female parliamentarians in the world. In 2015 the Rwandan Constitution was amended to allow President Kagame run again and many of his supporters worry about the country’s stability if he leaves.

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Critics argue, however, that President Kagame will be re-elected because there is simply no room for competition. After resigning as president in March 2000, Bizimungu unveiled an opposition party. He was arrested in 2002, warned publicly by President Kagame not to dabble in divisive politics, and sentenced to 15 years in jail in 2004 for inciting ethnic violence. He would be released in 2007, on a presidential pardon, after writing a plea for clemency to Mr Kagame.

The genocide in Rwanda, in which more than 800,000 people were killed in just 100 days, continues to cast a shadow over Rwanda’s politics. Most of those killed in the genocide were ethnic Tutsi, although many moderate Hutu were also killed. Rwanda has since passed strict laws to avoid a repeat of ethnic tensions but critics say these laws are used to stop political opponents. The country is majority Hutu but the government, which has many Tutsi among its top political and military echelons, has been keen to avoid these ethnic labels, which were promoted during colonial times and actively fanned during the genocide.

In the country’s first post-genocide election, in August 2003, President Kagame faced off against Faustin Twagiramungu, a former prime minister who flew in from exile in Belgium. Unable to mobilise or hold rallies across the country, he managed just 3.62 per cent of the vote while Kagame scored 95.06 per cent, with a turnout of 96.5 per cent. The 2010 election was decidedly more dramatic.

In August 2009 a former environmental journalist and activist, Frank Habineza, announced the formation of the Green Democratic Party but it did not receive official registration for many years. A few weeks to the election the party’s vice president, André Kagwa Rwisereka was found beheaded in the countryside in what party supporters claimed was an assassination.

But the biggest threats to President Kagame and the RPF’s grip on power came from elsewhere. Internally, two key allies, former army chief of staff Gen. Faustin Kayumba Nyamwasa, and former intelligence chief Col Patrick Karegeya, had fallen out with Kagame and fled into exile in South Africa whence they openly criticised the government. Externally, a firebrand politician, Victoire Ingabire, had returned to Rwanda a few months to the elections, driven straight to the genocide memorial in the capital Kigali, and demanded to know why there were no memorials for the Hutu dead.

Both threats have since been severely degraded. Ingabire was arrested in April 2010 for threatening state stability and “belittling” the 1994 genocide, and though initially released on bail, barred from running in the election.

Political problems

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She was later rearrested, convicted, and sentenced to eight years in jail. She appealed to the country’s highest court and in December 2013 the court upheld her earlier conviction, also found her guilty of spreading rumours intended to incite people to revolt – charges on which she had earlier been cleared – and increased her jail term from eight to 15 years.

In its ruling the Supreme Court said it had taken a lenient view and reduced her sentence from 27 years to ‘only’ 15 because of her family being in the Netherlands, and also because she was a first offender.

In July 2010 Gen Kayumba survived an assassination attempt in South Africa, which he blamed on his political problems with the Rwanda government. On January 1, 2014 Col. Karegeya was found strangled in a hotel room in Johannesburg where he had gone to meet a contact from Kigali.

The Rwanda government denied responsibility but officials openly celebrated his demise.

President Kagame went on to win the 2010 election with 93 per cent of the vote. Candidates from three smaller political parties, which had all supported Kagame in the 2003 election and were widely seen as acolytes of the ruling party, shared the rest of the spoils. With most potentially serious rivals in jail, in exile, dead or simply unpopular or unable to run, President Kagame faces a stroll to re-election in August.

Apart from Ms Rwigara and Mr Habineza, the election has also caught the attention of Philipe Mpayimana, a former journalist who lived in exile in the Central African Republic and then France, and whose underwhelming intent was demonstrated by arriving at a press conference on a motorcycle taxi. It is unlikely that the incumbent will be losing too much sleep. In a recent interview with Jeune Afrique magazine President Kagame pushed back at criticism of the lack of genuine political competition in the country and in the upcoming election.

Asked to justify the presence of only one authorised opposition political party (the Green Democratic Party, which claims a membership of half-a-million) in Rwanda, Kagame said, “My job is not to create opposition parties, but to foster an environment in which different ideas and opinions can be expressed”.

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Lack of suspense

Asked to explain his guaranteed re-election and the lack of suspense, Kagame said: “Is this a bad thing? I do not think so. Rwanda has a specific history and a recent past that results in a specific democratic process and electoralbehaviour. Wanting to judge them in the context of nations that have not experienced the tragedy of genocide is meaningless and will lead you to never understanding anything that is happening here.”

So predictable is the outcome in Rwanda that the European Union said last month it would not send an observer mission to the country, despite sending one to Kenya, which also goes to the polls in August. “We don’t see the need and have limited resources,” Michael Ryan, the head of the EU delegation to Rwanda said.

“There are many elections in the world and we have to decide where to put our resources.” President Kagame used the Jeune Afrique interview to send what he described as an “essential” message: “this election is our business and ours alone,” he said. “If I claimed to give lessons to the world, then the world would be right to judge me. But this is all about Rwanda and Rwandans. The outside world has no lessons to give us.”

Despite his stranglehold on power in Rwanda, President Kagame indicated that his upcoming seven-year term, which would see him extend his reign to 30 years, could be his last. Asked if this would be his last term (the Constitution allows him one more), he said: “I think so, yes. And it is likely that I will clarify this point when we begin the electoral campaign.

“There is a sort of contract between me, on one hand, the RPF party and the Rwandan people, on the other. They wanted, through the constitutional referendum of December 2015 that I continue my work, which I accepted.

But the time has come to tell them that they must start thinking beyond me.” Until that time comes Kagame will remain the uncontested leader of Rwanda and the August election will be more of a coronation than of a political contest.

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