Rwanda: A Misstep Toward Healing?

Rwandans line up to vote
Rwandans line up to vote in Kigali (Photo: Gianluigi Guercia/AFP-Getty Images).

On Aug. 25, Rwandans went to the polls for the first time since the genocide in 1994 left an estimated 800,000 people dead. It was also the first multiparty election in the country’s history. But although Rwanda won plaudits from across the region for its transition to democracy, there was criticism of the atmosphere in which the election was conducted.

Intimidation, vote-rigging, ballot-stuffing, and manipulation of voter rolls were some of the charges leveled against the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front (RFP) and its candidate, incumbent President Paul Kagame, who won the election with more than 95 percent of the vote.

Kagame, who assumed Rwanda’s presidency in 2000, has been credited with promoting reconciliation and developing infrastructure and financial institutions. “Kagame thrives on his message of a stable, secure, united, and prosperous nation,” wrote Marcel Museminari in Kigali’s The New Times (Aug. 24). The Rwandan government banned all independent newspapers earlier this year.

“Kagame derives moral authority from the fact that he is the leader of the group that single-handedly stopped the genocide,” wrote The New Vision (Aug. 27). “His belief in a strong state, however, sometimes borders on the undemocratic. Any ideas...not in conformity with state policy are viewed as anti-people and...seen through ethnic lenses.” In the run-up to the election, Kagame’s main challenger, Faustin Twagiramungu, a moderate Hutu who narrowly escaped being killed in the genocide, complained that his campaign materials had been impounded, his supporters intimidated, and his access to the media blocked. His appeals to Rwandan Hutus to support a fellow Hutu led Kagame and the RFP to accuse him of promoting “divisionism” (a code word for ethnic hatred in Rwanda), and his party, the Democratic Republican Movement, was banned.

Twagiramungu, who subsequently ran as an independent,  told the Mail & Guardian (Aug. 25) he was reduced to handing out photocopies of his business card in order to publicize himself. “This is a typically communist way of conducting politics, a Stalinist method,” he told the paper.

But most editorialists in the region, though agreeing that election conditions were far from ideal, seemed inclined to give Kagame the benefit of the doubt, noting that he had gained the confidence of the majority Hutu population.

“The people of Rwanda have shown that they are starting to mature politically and that they are ready to get rid of their ethnic differences in that country, the majority of whose citizens are Hutus,” wrote Mwananchi (Aug. 29). But Kagame should resist complacency and “employ the popular mandate to push forward peace and reconciliation rather than interpret it as license to turn the screw on his opponents,” wrote the Daily Nation (Aug. 28).

On Sept. 2, Rwanda’s Supreme Court dismissed a petition against the election results by Twagiramungu, who asked the court to consider his “protest” before endorsing the election results. The court declined.