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President Kagame’s victory next month is assured. Of greater interest is how he will achieve it and his policies towards the regional flashpoints
Lest there was any doubt about the outcome of the 4 August presidential election, President Paul Kagame dispelled it himself at a mass rally on 14 July, when official campaigning began. Mocking foreign critics, he declared, 'Some people have said that the result of the election is a foregone conclusion. They are not wrong. Rwandans made their position clear in 2015.' He was referring to the referendum on changing the constitution to allow him a third term in office.
In none of the seven popular votes since 2003 has the turnout fallen below 96% or Kagame's personal vote fallen below 93%. The 2015 referendum clocked up a 98.3% 'yes' vote on a turnout of 98.3% (AC Vol 57 No 1, Strong man, strong growth). One diplomat in Kigali jokes that he is trying to set up a radio station with the frequency 98.3 FM. If Kagame wins the next three elections, he could be in power until 2034, when he would be 76.
The ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front has left nothing to chance despite its overwhelming popular support in the countryside and it continues to make life extremely difficult for all oppositionists. Once, the Liberal and Social Democratic parties challenged government policies after 2003 but they then fell into lockstep with the RPF after a succession of hostile measures against their members, meetings and organisation. While each had an independent political programme in 2010, while acknowledging the supremacy of Kagame, neither bothered to put up candidates this time around.
Kagame's only opponents now are the Democratic Green Party founder and leader, Frank Habineza, and Philippe Mpayimana, a political unknown who spent 18 years out of the country. An ex-teacher, he has not openly criticised the incumbent and is standing as an independent. Habineza was a journalist and a civil society activist before joining the political opposition. He fled to Sweden shortly before the 2010 election after his party deputy was decapitated but he returned and registered his party officially in 2013.
The government-controlled media's hostility is palpable. One media outlet called Habineza's campaign 'bizarre', relating tales of chaotic public meetings ending in fights – which some observers attribute to RPF militants – and commenting that he was 'undoubtedly' receiving massive funds from fellow Green parties abroad.
Habineza exudes confidence, nonetheless. He claims support from over half of the electorate. Rising food prices, he says, are the main reason people support his party. 'The RPF government has started accepting that the opposition can play a role in the national development of the country,' he says. 'For them to accept my candidature, that's a positive step forward.' Political experts do not believe Habineza is a 'straw man' candidate, and praise his sincerity and courage. They add, however, that he is tolerated only to give the election the appearance of fairness.
'Victory is already guaranteed but they [the RPF] cannot resist draconian measures… Like many ex-rebel movements, they find it difficult to completely trust the population,' one pundit observed. In late May, the National Electoral Commission declared that it would vet all Tweets and Facebook postings, to 'ensure they were legal'. Protests came thick and fast, not only from foreign diplomats, including the United States Ambassador, Erica Barks-Ruggles, but from within the RPF, including Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo. It was an unusual, if tiny, crack in the RPF facade. The government has prided itself on embracing social media and the internet, and Kagame is an inveterate Tweeter. Some parts of the party thought the damage to its image would have been too serious and the NEC Chairperson, Kalisa Mbanda, was slapped down with a terse statement from the media regulation authority.
The RPF's dilemma over social media is likely to continue if it becomes a popular refuge for dissent. While political parties have all-but disappeared and media controls grown more pervasive, Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp have been buzzing with comments criticising the government, although they are well outnumbered by pro-government social media activity. Kagame has some 743,000 'likes' on Facebook against a paltry 25,000 for Habineza. Considering the political climate, say Rwanda watchers, that is a significant total.
The government has tried to maintain the image of a pluralist democracy but one would-be opposition candidate for the presidency touched a raw nerve. A 35-year-old businesswoman and women's rights activist, Diane Shima Rwigara, announced in May that she was standing and was forthright about her stance. 'Under the Rwandan Patriotic Front, many Rwandans are still struggling to have the basic needs in life or even have a meal,' she said. 'They talk of development but only a small section of people benefit from this development. The media is suppressed, political space is closed and while on paper Rwanda is said to be developing fast, there is a lot more to be desired. And I will address all these issues once I am elected.' Nude photos of Rwigara were leaked days after she announced her candidacy. She says government agents were trying to discredit her before the poll. She was not put off, however.
Rwigara's father, businessman Assinapol Rwigara, was killed in February 2015 in Kigali's wealthy Gacuriro district, when his car was hit side-on by a lorry. One of the country's richest people, he had interests in tobacco, alcohol and property, and had been an open supporter of the RPF during the reign of the late President Juvénal Habyarimana (AC Vol 35 No 8, From coup to carnage). However, he fell out with the RPF over his support for the return of Rwanda's last Tutsi monarch, King Kigeli V Ndahindurwa, who was overthrown in 1961, just before Independence, and died in exile last year (AC Vol 51 No 2, Problems on the home front). The Rwigara family says Assinapol was murdered, a view widely held in the diplomatic community, but the government denies any involvement.
On 1 July, the NEC ruled that Rwigara and two other independent candidates – Gilbert Mwenedata and Fred Sekikubo Barafinda – had failed to qualify. All say they had correctly collected the necessary 600 signatures but the NEC said they were short.
A story appeared in pro-RPF media saying the identities of dead people had been used to fill out Rwigara's nomination form.
The European Union, which is one of Rwanda's biggest donors with 460 million euros (US$528 mn.) earmarked for development projects in 2014-20, is not sending an Election Observer Mission, as it did in 2003 and 2008 – these have to be invited – but the NEC has asked EU and other diplomats to be present at polling stations. 'The more the RPF consolidates its position and restricts human rights, the less the interest of the donors in scrutiny,' said one seasoned observer.
The economy is less tractable than politics. Oppositionists point out that Rwanda's trade deficit was $1.6 billion last year and inflationary pressures are mounting. The Finance Minister, Claver Gatete, told Parliament on 8 June that 17% of the government's 2017/18 budget would be funded by foreign donors. Senior foreign diplomats in Kigali say the real figure is closer to 35%. The RPF is reluctant to acknowledge the leverage the foreigners have but all the diplomatic signals have been positive and the donors remain enthusiastic about Rwanda's growth and the development projects they support. The World Bank has committed to $201 mn. so far this year.
The government is drawing up plans to secure new sources of foreign currency. Exporting cassiterite could prove to be the best short-term bet. Rwanda has long complained that the US Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act's controls on 'conflict minerals' are a severe obstacle to Rwandan exports, since many of them originate in Congo-Kinshasa (AC Vol 57 No 13, Tighter rules on war booty). If, as widely predicted, President Donald Trump presides over the emasculation of the Act, Rwanda stands to gain a mineral exports windfall. In 2015/16, mining revenue brought in $94 mn. in foreign exchange and Kigali says earnings could reach $400 mn. a year if the restrictions were not there. Another plan is to scale up the state-owned airline, RwandAir, which inaugurated a thrice-weekly direct flight to London Gatwick, its first European destination, on 26 May. It has also started routes to Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and Mumbai, India, and plans new services to China and the USA in the coming months.
Kigali accused of meddling in Burundi and Congo
International actors are more and more worried about Kigali exacerbating internal conflict in Burundi while, hidden from view, a massive refugee crisis spirals out of control. About 600,000 Burundians – about 5% of the population – have fled to neighbouring Rwanda, Tanzania and Congo-Kinshasa. President Paul Kagame's apparent support of President Joseph Kabila is also causing concern.
Rwanda has not caused so many international headaches since 2013, when fighting between United Nations forces and the Kigali-sponsored Mouvement 23 mars militia in eastern Congo-Kinshasa threatened to lead to an invasion by regular Rwandan forces. Only last-minute diplomatic appeals backed by threats of sanctions and cuts in donor funds caused President Kagame to back down (AC Vol 54 No 18, Kivu on the brink).
Rwanda is accused of recruiting from the 100,000 Burundian refugees it hosts, and sending them back to Burundi to carry out intelligence operations and attacks. Some 25,000 Burundian refugees are in Kigali alone, according to official estimates. Some analysts say the real figure could be twice as high and the incomers are causing pressures on housing and utilities.
Unrest in Burundi has increased massively since President Pierre Nkurunziza's decided to take a third, unconstitutional term of office, and a coup against him failed in May 2015, just before and his re-election as President the following July. In January 2016 the then United States Ambassador to the UN Samatha Power infuriated Kigali by saying, during a visit to Bujumbura, 'We believe that the reports of Rwandan involvement are credible, and we have exerted public and private pressure on Rwanda to do nothing to further destabilise the situation.'
What Kagame's strategic aims in Burundi may be are unknown. He may, diplomats say, merely want unrest and instability, which also may be the reason for his apparent support for President Kabila. Kagame may, the diplomats added, be positioning himself as the only person who can deal with a recalcitrant Kabila, who is resisting all pressure to call long overdue elections. If Rwanda remains an island of stability amid the mayhem of eastern Congo-K and a Burundi on the verge of civil war, the reasoning goes, Kagame can increase his value to the West as a strategic ally and deflect any criticism of his domestic policies.
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