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Rwanda: 2 sides to Paul Kagame

Upcoming election shows president is both effective leader and repressive.

Rally for Paul Kagame
Supporters of Rwandan President Paul Kagame hold up a poster at a rally in Kigali in the run-up to the Aug. 9 election. (Jon Rosen/GlobalPost)

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.
(Jon Rosen/GlobalPost)

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.