KIGALI, Rwanda — Rwandan president Paul Kagame is headed for another seven year term in office, with preliminary results from Monday’s election showing a landslide victory for the man regarded as one of Africa’s most effective leaders but who is also increasingly under fire for his authoritarianism.
With results in from 11 of Rwanda’s 30 districts, Kagame, running on behalf of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), sits in a comfortable lead with 92.9 percent of the vote.
His closest challenger, Damascene Ntawukuliryayo of the Social Democratic Party, with 4.9 percent of the vote has already conceded defeat. The other two contenders — the Liberal Party’s Prosper Higiro and Alvera Mukabaramba of the Party for Progress and Concorde — both scored less than 2 percent.
Addressing a rally at Kigali’s Amahoro Stadium, at well past four in the morning on Tuesday, Kagame dedicated his victory to the Rwandan people, and urged the crowd to maintain its support as his government continues to work toward Rwanda’s development.
“An RPF win is a victory for Rwanda, for all Rwandans,” he told supporters, most of whom had been dancing and singing for hours.
Despite some concerns over election related security, no incidents of violence were reported. At polling stations across the capital, the mood was largely subdued as voters lined up from 6 a.m. to cast their ballots.
While an African Union observer mission reported no irregularities in the poll, mission chief Anil K. Gayan told reporters he had some initial reservations about the format of the ballot. Rather than punching a card or marking an X, Rwandan voters are asked to leave a thumb print next to the name and photo of their preferred candidate, leading to some concerns that the government could determine who voted against the president.
Many critics say Kagame’s victory will be marred by the exclusion of three main opposition candidates and a pre-election period that the rights-group Amnesty International said was defined by a “climate of repression likely to inhibit freedom of expression ahead of the vote.”
Victoire Ingabire, the outspoken leader of the opposition party Union of Democratic Forces, remains under extended house arrest, and one of her supporters, Beatrice Uwimana, has been missing since police arrested a group of peaceful protesters on June 24.
Bernard Ntaganda, head of the fractured party PS-Imberakuri, is behind bars, accused of plotting to kill the leader of his party’s splinter faction.
Green Party chairman Frank Habineza, whose deputy was found murdered last month in a case that remains unsolved, was also left off the ballot.
Ingabire has called the election a “masquerade,” and alleges the opposition candidates allowed to run are “stooges” of Kagame and in the race merely to “bolster the legitimacy of the RPF and hoodwink the international community that the elections are free and fair.”
Though the three official challengers cited differences with the RPF on various policy issues, none openly criticized Kagame in their campaigns and all supported his last presidential bid in 2003.
Higiro and Ntawukuliryayo, both high-ranking parliamentarians in the current government, denied Ingabire’s accusations in interviews with GlobalPost, saying they were legitimate contenders competing within the rules of the system and committed to advancing their parties’ platforms.
Each defended the government’s actions in thwarting Ingabire, who was charged with “divisionism,” and “genocide ideology” after speaking publicly on numerous occasions in a manner said to stir-up ethnic sentiments.
Ethnicity remains an extremely touchy issue in Rwanda just 16 years after the country’s genocide, where 800,000 Tutsi and moderate Hutu were slaughtered in 100 days by Hutu militias loyal to extremists within the government of former president Juvenal Habyarimana. Today, though tensions between Hutu and Tutsi are muted, most Rwandans admit that ethnic resentment continues to fester.
While 85 percent of Rwandans are Hutu, Kagame, the bulk of the RPF hierarchy, and much of the country’s brightest young talent are Tutsi. By calling for investigations into genocide-era crimes committed against Hutu and warning of future violence if Hutu are not given more political space, Ingabire has drawn attention to ethnic divisions in a manner many view as dangerous to national security.
“If you want to play politics in Rwanda, you cannot go by promoting such divisionism,” said Ntawukuliryayo, who, like Ingabire, is a Hutu. “I cannot understand someone starting once again to talk about ethnicity in this country because we know where this has put us.”
While such views are widespread inside Rwanda, some argue that the Kagame government’s unbending response to critical dialogue in advance of the election is as troubling as the rhetoric it has stifled.
“Cracking down on opposition in this manner has diminished Kagame’s victory and is going to undermine him,” said Wafula Okumu, head of the African Security Analysis program at the Pretoria-based Institute for Security Studies. “Right now Rwanda is a system built around one person. For the future stability of the country, Kagame would benefit by allowing democratic opposition to take root.”
According to most observers, the RPF’s large campaign war chest, its acute organization at local levels, and the development that average Rwandans have seen under Kagame — particularly in agriculture and education — means that Monday’s result was determined long ago.
“Even with real challengers, Kagame would have won the election,” Okumu told GlobalPost. “But he was afraid the margin of victory would have been low. He wanted to maintain a high percentage for his legitimacy.”
Now, the former rebel leader hopes to carry momentum from his decisive victory into what he has pledged will be his final term as president. Yet with no likely successor in view, many in Rwanda are already speculating whether Kagame will attempt to stay in power when the term expires in 2017.
In the short term, while the election has passed, challenges to his regime have not evaporated.
In recent months, a number of defections by high-level army officers have highlighted what many say is an acute falling out between the president, military top brass, and key RPF insiders. In March, two high-ranking officers, Col. Patrick Karegeya and Gen. Faustin Kayumba Nyamwasa, fled to South Africa after being accused of masterminding a series of recent grenade attacks in Kigali. The government sacked and detained two others in an April army reshuffling.
Though Rwandan authorities deny involvement, Nyamwasa was shot and injured in South Africa in June in an apparent failed assassination attempt. In the latest row, Karegeya openly “declared war” on Rwanda’s president last week, telling the Uganda Observer he is “prepared to support Rwandans who want to fight the dictatorship of Paul Kagame.”
Despite such talk, Okumu maintains that Rwanda is stable, and that Kagame’s grip on the military is so strong that a coup attempt is highly unlikely. Yet high-level defections, which he says are linked mostly to financial interests — including land holdings, party investments and windfalls from the trading in minerals from neighboring eastern Congo — are likely to continue.
“The falling out is very bad at the moment,” he said. “Kagame will continue to see cracks in his inner circle.”
To Rwandans lining up to cast their ballots Monday, such concerns were of little consequence. Most voters interviewed told GlobalPost their chief concerns were security and development — and gave high marks to Kagame in both areas.
“Look around. Last election, we didn’t have that primary school, we didn’t have that tank of water,” said taxi driver Joseph Kanamugine after voting in Kigali. “Most importantly we have peace. I thank president Kagame for that.”