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Fair and free elections in Rwanda or a grand farce?

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Rwanda President Paul Kagame speaks during a press conference at the Kigali Conference Centre in Kigali on April 8, 2024, marking the 30th anniversay of the Rwanda Genocide. Kagame is not picture perfect, but he has successfully transformed Rwanda from a genocidal furnace into a functional welfare state, the writer says. – Picture: Guillem Sartorio / AFP

By Kim Heller

President Paul Kagame, and the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), are gearing up for the country’s Presidential and Parliamentary elections which take place on July 15, 2024. Kagame who has been President since 2000 will contest against the Democratic Green Party of Rwanda’s Frank Habineza, and independent candidate, Philippe Mpayimana.

It is a small field of candidates which many argue has been calculatingly clipped to safeguard the hegemony of the RPF. The leader of the People Salvation Movement, Diane Rwigara, was excluded as a Presidential contender, on technical grounds, after the country’s electoral commission ruled that she failed to provide the obligatory documentation.

During the 2017 election, Rwigara was charged with forging documentation as well as inciting insurrection. She was arrested but later acquitted. Human Rights Watch argued that the charges against Rwigara appeared to have been politically motivated.

In that election, Kagame competed against Habineza and Mpayimana, and secured over 98 percent of the vote. Together the other two candidates could not even muster two percent of the vote.

Human Rights groups have long raised the alarm that Kagame and the ruling RPF hush, hamper and hound opposition voices. There are plenty verified accounts of human rights transgressions, including the arrest and torture of political opponents and government critics. Currently, it is alleged that there are four journalists and fourteen members of the unregistered Dalfa-Umurinzi opposition in prison.

In 2017, Amnesty International cautioned that for two decades, Rwanda’s political space and electoral process was marked by “restrictions on the freedoms of association and assembly, targeted attacks against opposition leaders, killings, disappearances and political trials, weakening civil society and the media”.

The organisation warned that this has had a chilling effect on Rwanda’s socio-political terrain as it forces critics to self-censor or refrain from challenging those in power.

Ironically, human rights organisations and Western governments who frequently criticise current day Rwanda on matters of human rights, did little to assist in 1994, when the nation was torn apart by genocide.

Close to 9.5 million Rwandans are expected to cast their vote on 15 July 2024, 2 million of which will be first-time voters. Over 300 observers will oversee the elections.

Historically Rwanda’s elections are marked by exceptionally high voter turnout. In all four of the Presidential elections that have been held in Rwanda since 2003, voter turnout has been over 95 percent.

According to the World Population Review, Rwanda is the country with the second highest voter turnout globally for Presidential elections, after Equatorial Guinea. In Rwanda’s last Presidential election in 2017, voter turnout was 98 percent.

This compares extremely favourably to other African countries. South Africa’s 2024 election saw a voter turnout of just 59 percent. In DRC’s 2023 election, turnout was 41 percent. Nigeria’s election which took place last year saw voter turnout of just 26 percent. In the US’s 2020 election, approximately 66.5 percent of eligible voters cast their vote.

In all Rwanda’s Presidential elections since 2003, Paul Kagame has emerged with a runaway lead. He has always garnered support of over 90 percent in these elections. It is almost certain that incumbent President Paul Kagame and the RPF will emerge victorious, on July 15, 2024.

For associate Professor at the University of Nottingham, David E Kiwuwa, no other party contender stands a chance in Rwanda.

This he argues is due to the RPF using its parliamentary dominance to pass strict rules governing political parties. Kiwuwa writes how this domination has seen the demise of political parties such as the Mouvement Démocratique Républicain (MDR) and the co-opting of others into a coalition.

“It is not surprising that Kagame is gearing up for another presidential contest,” Kiwuwa writes. “After all, it appears that, over the years, Rwanda’s president has developed an effective blueprint not only for winning elections, but also for doing so with seemingly universal public approval.”

Rwandan lawyer and political analyst, Gatete Nyiringabo Ruhumuliza, is upbeat about Kagame. In June 2024, he wrote in Al Jazeera, of a concerted effort in the West to create the impression that President Paul Kagame is a ruthless despot who does not have the support of his people.

Ruhumuliza writes, “Of course, Rwanda is not ‘perfect’. It has its problems and challenges like any other country. Furthermore, it is facing unique obstacles as it continues to work towards reconciliation, rehabilitation and recovery following the horrific 1994 genocide against the Tutsis. But it is in no way the hellscape ruled by a murderous regime the Western media paints it to be.”

Ruhumuliza writes that waves of biased critical reports published by Western media organisations will not turn the Rwandan people against President Kagame and his government.

President Paul Kagame has often expressed disdain about the hypocrisy of the West dictating to others on democracy when the very same countries violate the very values and principles of democracy.

During an interview at Rwanda Television this week, President Paul Kagame said that while critics have their right to talk, they are not necessarily right. He said, “Democracy is about freedom of choice, the kind of political life countries, people, and individuals live.

“I have never known of any place, if anybody knows they will tell me, where democracy has succeeded by introducing those ideals from the outside. The other important thing about those freedoms, choices, and practices is the political context of every country, whether historical or cultural, you will see different practices and lines of thinking that are going to be different from one place to another.

“I have tried to understand what is it that is practised in this country, in Rwanda, that is different or that is the opposite of that description I have given. I don’t see it.”

Kagame is not picture perfect, but he has successfully transformed Rwanda from a genocidal furnace into a functional welfare state. Under his mantle, Rwanda’s standing and role in the Continent has been supersized.

He has taken great strides in rooting out corruption in government and in extending social services to the people of Rwanda. He has given Rwandans a reason to believe in Rwanda again and this is undoubtedly a key contributing factor to his overwhelming electoral support.

In late 2015, a referendum among Rwandan citizens overwhelmingly approved constitutional amendments to allow Kagame to run for additional terms in office. While some would argue that this is a mark of a depot unwilling to part with power and position, the less sceptical may argue that it is a vote of confidence for a President who has steered his country out of despair and towards democracy and development.

Nonetheless, the silencing and suppression of dissenting voices is to be frowned upon for it directly infringes on the democratic rights of citizens and character of the nation. The persistent pattern of suppressing opposition voices has become a permanent marker of Rwanda elections.

This is an ugly stain on democracy in Rwanda. It distracts from the sterling work Kagame has done to rebuild the nation. Kagame turned the bloodstained canvas of genocide into a peaceful landscape. He must now remove the still-life of fear and ensure that democracy is deeply etched across all ambits of Rwandan society and elections.

Kim Heller is a political analyst and author of ‘No White Lies: Black Politics and White Power in South Africa’.

* This article was written exclusively for The African. To republish, see terms and conditions.

** The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of The African