Presidential elections in Rwanda

Today is a big day in Rwanda – presidential elections! Well, in some ways it’s not a particularly exciting day because there are no doubts at all about who the winner will be, but it’s been interesting to be here at the time of the campaign. The atmosphere has been quite festive over the past month, and right now I can hear lots of singing and shouting across the valley.

But let me start with a little bit of background. In July 1994, Rwandan Patriotic Front, the rebel forces led by Paul Kagame (who grew up in Uganda after his parents fled Rwanda in 1959 when the first major ethnic conflict between the Hutu and the Tutsi erupted), entered Kigali, thus formally ending the Genocide (in reality, the killings went on for years after that, just not on such a mass scale). For the next 6 years, Kagame served as Vice-President as Defence Minister (at the same time), and in 2000 he became President after the incumbent, Pasteur Bizimungu, resigned (it’s not clear why he did so. Shortly afterwards Bizimungu established the Party for Democratic Renewal which was immediately banned and he was imprisoned. Kagame pardoned him unexpectedly in 2007). He was then elected in national elections in 2003, and again in 2010. In December 2015, a referendum was called in which the constitution was changed, thus allowing him to stand for three more terms. Kagame argued that the first three years in office didn’t count as a full term as he was sworn in after the then president resigned, which means he had only been a democratically elected president for 2 terms so far. He also explained that the nation had asked him to continue leading, so how could he refuse. 98% of voters approved the constitutional amendment; 6.3 million people voted (the total population of Rwanda is around 12 million but about half is under 18 years of age). This year, apart from Kagame, there are two other candidates: Frank Habineza, the leader of the opposition Democratic Green Party (DGP), and an independent candidate Philippe Mpayimana. Initially there were three more, including one woman, Diane Rwigara (a businesswoman and women’s rights activist), but they were all barred as apparently they didn’t manage to get enough signatures from all the districts in the country, or some of the signatures apparently came from people long dead. Also, nude photos of Rwigara suddenly appeared in the media after she announced her candidature.

I don’t want to go into too much detail about Kagame’s presidency over the years, all the good and more sinister stuff that’s been happening, so let me give voice to one of my Rwandan friends who agreed to tell me what he thought about what is happening right now. I’ll call him Claude – I don’t know who reads my blog and I don’t want him to get in trouble. He said that what he was telling me was not something he could tell the guy in the street. That guy might have similar opinions, but if he doesn’t, Claude could end up questioned by the police. It is not allowed to say anything critical about Paul Kagame.

One of the roundabouts in Kigali, decorated with RPF flags and pots

The presidential campaigns kicked off on 14 July. The candidates were given three weeks, until 2 August, to organise rallies and gather supporters. The streets and roundabouts in Kigali got decorated with RPF flags (which, bizarrely, look quite a bit like a French flag, France being the country particularly hated by the Rwandan government for its involvement in the Genocide). Claude shook his head at this and said: What’s the point of all this if everyone knows Kagame will win anyway? Why spend so much money on all those flags, T-shirts, concerts, when people in the countryside are starving? For example, the government has ordered some farmers to stop growing beans or potatoes, and plant sweetcorn instead. Rwanda is a rural society, with subsistence agriculture at its core, and in the past, the person who grew tomatoes exchanged them with another who grew cassava. Now, there seems to be corn everywhere, and this is not something that can sustain people in the long term – if you have potatoes, you can feed your family for quite a while, but not so much with corn.

RPF merchandise in one of the shopping centres in Kigali

According to Claude, having three candidates in the elections implies choice – but frankly, there isn’t any. Kagame claimed victory on the first day of the campaign, and the only party paraphernalia on display around the country come from the RPF (I haven’t seen anything, not even a poster, from the DGP, not to mention the independent candidate whom nobody really knows anyway as he’s been living in France and only came to Rwanda to campaign). Whether you vote for either of the two other candidates, Kagame will still win with a massive margin. So the only satisfaction you will have is knowing that you defied the pressure and put a cross next to someone else’s name, but in reality nothing will change for you.

A quick photo taken from the car: one of the main roundabouts in the city centre, flags and bunting – all RPF.

Claude is also uncertain about Habineza. He created the DGP in 2009 and tried to register it for the presidential elections in 2010, but didn’t succeed. Instead, Habineza’s deputy was found dead, with multiple stabs on his body and his head cut off. Habineza then fled to Europe and stayed there for a couple of years. However, according to Claude, before Habineza set up his own party, he was close to Kagame’s government. So is the fact that he is now allowed to not only have his own party, but also stand in the elections, an indication that Kagame has softened, or is it just a cold calculation that since Rwanda brands itself as a democracy, it needs to have a legitimate opposition, so Habineza is the token opposition leader to show the West that things work here? These are the questions that people are asking themselves. No one is 100% certain that the DGP exists independently and is not controlled by the RPF. Habineza in turn has said that his campaign has generally gone well, after a few hiccups in the beginning (when, for example, local authorities denied him the right to organise a rally in a previously agreed venue, and relocated him to a cemetery) and the fact that this time neither he and his party members nor his supporters were harassed, intimidated or murdered, might indicate that the RPF begins to see that opposition doesn’t automatically mean enemy. But Claude told me that at one of Habineza’s rallies a group of kids arrived and booed him and threw some rocks at him. Would this be possible at Kagame’s rally? Of course not. Did Habineza say anything about it or protest? No. What does it say about him then? Is he afraid or doesn’t he care too much because he’s actually part of the RPF camp? There have been other parties in Rwanda but they either were banned, their leaders imprisoned, or they openly support the current president and the RPF, so how come the DGP are allowed to operate generally unperturbed? Is this one of way of massaging the egos of the Western donors and fans of Rwanda’s success, like Bill Clinton and Tony Blair?


I asked Claude what happens if you don’t want to vote because you don’t think any of the candidates is suitable. He smiled. In the last presidential and parliamentary elections, local authorities would go from home to home with the ballots, making sure people put their inked thumb in the right place. People were not allowed to use voting booths. If you expressed any doubts or criticism, the police waiting outside would take you in for questioning and accuse you of obstructing the democratic process. Claude said that when they came to his family home, he also voted for the RPF, even though he didn’t support them, because otherwise he would have ended up at the police station, and possibly in jail, and brought a lot of problems on his family. This year, it may be a bit easier to evade voting, especially in Kigali as it’s a big city, but the system very closely controls it anyway so there isn’t much chance to remain unnoticed. All Rwandans are grouped into “villages” called umudugudu. Each consists of about 120-150 families and has a local leader. Every Rwandan, including Kagame, belongs to some umudugudu. On the last Saturday of the month, each “village” participates in umuganda (community work). This means that within each group, people know one another quite well, and the leader certainly knows a lot as his job is to keep his community productive and law-abiding, and to report any misbehaviour to the higher authorities. So if you don’t vote at all, people will surely notice. Therefore, the vast majority of Rwandans don’t seem to even consider not going to the polls.

I asked Claude who he would vote for. His answer was diplomatically evasive – I can’t vote for the RPF, he said, putting his hand on his chest. But as he didn’t seem particularly sold on Habineza either, and couldn’t even remember the independent candidate’s name, I suppose he found himself in a place familiar to many people who feel that no matter what choice they make, it won’t be in agreement with their conscience. He might just spoil the ballot by marking all three, or none, and thus show his dissatisfaction with the situation, but that still won’t change tomorrow’s news about Kagame’s landslide victory.

Polling station, Western Province
Swearing in volunteers, Western Province

My boyfriend is in the Western Province as an election observer right now (the two photos above are his), and having visited several polling stations, both the model one and smaller ones in the countryside, he is rather impressed. There are booths this time, there are boxes for the votes, everything seems to be going smoothly. It all seems absolutely legitimate, and I’m pretty sure it is. But as Claude told me, people don’t go voting because they feel it’s their citizen responsibility. They will vote because since the beginning of the year they’ve been lobbied by the RPF who reminded them that Kagame is their saviour and therefore they needed to keep him in power in order for the their lives to keep improving. Some will vote because at the RPF rallies, they got free food and beer, and some T-shirts. And while many truly believe that Kagame is the best thing that could happen to this country, there are growing numbers of those who are critical but too scared to speak out, even if it’s through an anonymous ballot. One thing is pretty much certain: no one will question Kagame’s victory because there will be no need to meddle with the results. More than 90% of the population will actually vote for him, either out of genuine conviction that he is the best candidate, or out of fear. Doesn’t it show how immense his power is?

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