KIGALI, Rwanda — It’s the first day of campaigning for Rwanda’s Aug. 9 election and thousands have packed Kigali’s Amahoro Stadium to show support for President Paul Kagame.
In a country where passions are often subdued, the atmosphere is festive and even raucous. As a group of Rwandan pop stars perform renditions of the campaign anthem “Tora Kagame” (“Vote Kagame”), the president’s supporters sing and dance. Some sport T-shirts with their leader’s portrait, others wave the red, white and powder-blue flag of the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), and a handful of young men blow plastic vuvuzelas — the noisemakers made famous in the 2010 World Cup.
Even Kagame, known for his icy stoicism, smiles as he dances on stage, awkwardly twisting his bony frame before launching into a speech highlighting Rwanda’s development during his 10 years as president.
“Today we begin our campaign for the RPF candidate,” he tells the crowd in Kinyarwanda.
“Ni wowe!” his supporters chant in unison. “It is you!”
Rwandan supporters of President Paul Kagame ahead of the Aug. 9 election.
In a country just 16 years removed from genocide, the president and his followers have much to celebrate.
When Kagame’s RPF seized power in July of 1994, Rwanda was virtually annihilated. Over the previous 100 days, 800,000 people had been slaughtered, the vast majority of dead were ethnic Tutsis killed by militias loyal to Hutu extremists within the former government.
At the time, the country's infrastructure was in shambles. Decomposing bodies littered the streets. Nearly 300,000 children survived without parents — many roaming the hills alongside two million Hutu civilians the former regime herded into exile.
For months, and even years, Rwanda was a land of populations in flux, citizens living in fear, and continued ethnic killings — both by those seeking revenge and those vowing to “finish the job.”
Today, Rwanda bears little resemblance to that shattered nation. The capital, Kigali, is one of the cleanest and safest cities in Africa, an orderly metropolis of smooth roads and glistening office towers.
In the countryside, though poverty remains widespread, small-scale farmers have benefited from the creation of agricultural cooperatives and government-led efforts to increase the use of fertilizers, combat soil erosion, and provide one cow for every rural household. Across Rwanda, the government has introduced near-universal health insurance and free primary education.
Above all, in an ethnically divided nation, where genocide survivors often live near their families’ killers, Rwanda has avoided the return to systematic violence.
To Isidore Bimenyimana, a Kigali schoolteacher who was 16 during the genocide, Rwanda’s dramatic rebirth owes much to Kagame — a figure many have embraced as a new type of progress-driven strongman.
“Most leaders in Africa are not like our president,” Bimenyimana told GlobalPost. “Our president is confident. He encourages people to work hard. When he promises to do something, he does it. Rwanda has been renewed, and most people from Africa want to come see what we are achieving because of this man. I can even say I love him.”
But another side to Kagame has been exposed in the run-up to the election. To his critics, Rwanda’s president is a Big Brother figure in an Orwellian-tinged society — one where opposition is suppressed, dissenters silenced and threats disposed of with the aid of an assassin’s bullet and an elaborate spy network.
In advance of the election, authorities have harassed and arrested opposition supporters and prevented three main candidates from registering for the ballot, which all but guarantees Kagame will be elected to another seven-year term.
In recent months, newspapers critical of the government have been suspended from print and three vocal Kagame opponents — including an exiled former RPF general, an opposition leader, and a prominent local journalist — have been shot or killed under suspicious circumstances.
While there are no proven links between the RPF and any of the killings, it is not the first time Kagame’s government has been accused of politically motivated violence.
Since the 1998 killing in Nairobi of Seth Sendashonga, Rwanda’s first post-genocide Minister of Interior, there have been a number of suspicious killings of government critics. Pro-democracy and human rights groups have documented a laundry list of killings that targeted what Carina Tertsakian, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, terms “ultimate traitors,” former RPF insiders that fell out with the man some Rwandan’s call “Uncle Paul.”
“These events we are seeing now are more serious and intense than we have seen in a while, but they are not a new phenomenon,” said Tertsakian. “Historically, the current regime has not tolerated dissent and the crackdown on opposition has increased in the run-up to elections.”
Kagame’s government has long denied using violence as a political weapon. Yet even the president admits his regime is not the bastion of liberal democracy that many of his critics are calling for.
Though a long-time recipient of development and military assistance from the United States and other Western powers, Kagame has routinely asserted Rwanda’s sovereignty over its internal matters.
Kagame is known for his use of cunning public relations to attract a cadre of high-profile supporters — from the U.S. pastor Rick Warren to Google CEO Eric Schmidt. He also displays what French academic Gerard Punier has called a “capacity to fine-tune white guilt as a conductor directs an orchestra” — a reference to what some say is aid linked to Western remorse for turning its back on Rwanda in 1994.
In the face of criticism from outside pro-democracy groups, Kagame remains defiant. He argues that Western nations, with a long record of peace, are in no position to impose their political standards on a country still dealing with the ghosts of genocide.
“These people who want to give us information about how to be free, how to be democratic,” he said during a speech marking the genocide’s 16th anniversary, “have been on a journey for thousands of years to achieve being where they are.”
Among Kagame backers, New-York based Human Rights Watch has come under particular fire for protesting when authorities refused to renew Tertsakian’s work visa in April, and for embracing the opposition leader Victoire Ingabire, who critics allege has links to genocide fugitives and a Congo-based Hutu militia still bent on seizing power in Rwanda.
Yet Tertsakian says Human Rights Watch and other outside groups are not trying to interfere with internal Rwandan matters.
“I don’t think it’s up to us as outsiders to decide what is right for Rwandans," she said. “It’s up to Rwandans themselves. But, unfortunately, in this political climate that is not possible.”
Many in the Rwandan opposition echo these sentiments, speaking on behalf of citizens they say are too afraid to criticize their president.
Frank Habineza, a former RPF member who defected last year to found the opposition Green Party, has called for a Rwanda where all are entitled “freedom of expression without the fear of being treated like the enemy of the state.”
Ingabire, who returned to Rwanda in January after 16 years in the Netherlands, has accused the ruling party of ethnic and regional favoritism and warned of violent consequences if opponents of Kagame are not given a voice.
In particular, she cites unrest among Hutu whose relatives have been jailed through “gacaca” — the system of community justice introduced in 2005 to expedite trials for those accused of crimes linked to the genocide. While many Rwandans say “gacaca” has succeeded in advancing justice and hewing ethnic tensions, Ingabire charges the courts have “turned into government tools that do not help bring out truth, facilitate collective memory or reconciliation.”
Yet Billy Muga, who lost both parents in the genocide, praises the government’s reconciliation efforts.
Muga, 20, recently finished high school on a government scholarship for genocide survivors. While he admits some other students resented the fact his fees were paid for, he says he was never singled out for being Tutsi.
“Some people with ethnic ideology don’t like our president,” he said from the small Kigali home he shares with his grandmother and two sisters — which was abandoned by a Hutu family that fled after the genocide and is now rented to Muga with assistance from the government. “But the young are being educated to leave that ideology.”
“Other people say our president is a gift from God,” he continued, smiling.
“Without him, I would not be where I am now. I would have been a street boy.”