By Julian Hattem*
KIGALI, Rwanda — There is no litter in Kigali, Rwanda’s gleaming modern capital. Traffic sails smoothly along the wide boulevards that snake through the city’s hills, past new buildings of glass and steel.
Across the small East African country, an economic miracle seems to be underway. According to official statistics, people are earning more and living longer. The number of those in extreme poverty has shrunk. Rwanda may lack a seaport and boasts few natural resources, yet it has earned the nickname “Africa’s Singapore.”
None of this would have been imaginable 23 years ago, when neighbors turned on each other in the course of a genocide that lasted 100 days and left at least 800,000 ethnic minority Tutsis and moderate Hutus dead. The country is often likened to a phoenix risen from the ashes.
Asked to explain this remarkable recovery, many Rwandans point to one man — President Paul Kagame — and in a vote set for Friday, they will almost surely reelect him for a third seven-year term. Others, though, voice profound concern, arguing that behind their country’s dramatic socioeconomic gains lies a climate of suspicion and evidence of a creeping authoritarianism.
In the last presidential election in 2010, Kagame won with 93 percent of the vote. He faces two challengers this time, the Democratic Green Party’s Frank Habineza and independent former journalist Philippe Mpayimana, but neither is expected to peel off more than a few percentage points from the incumbent’s tally.
To his critics, Kagame, 59, has turned Rwanda around by methods that include using violence against political opponents, curtailing freedom of expression and other rights, and maintaining a tight grip on all aspects of government.
“The executive branch of the state here in Rwanda has more powers than others and influences all other decision-making organs,” Habineza said in a telephone interview. “If it’s not checked, it can bring total dictatorship here.”
In 2015, Assinapol Rwigara, a wealthy businessman and former financier of Kagame’s party, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), died in a car crash. His daughter, Diane Shima Rwigara, says she suspects that the crash was not accidental and that her father was assassinated after a fallout with the RPF.
“He’s one of the victims of this regime,” she said.
Earlier this year, Rwigara announced an independent bid for the presidency. Two days later, nude photographs of her appeared online. The electoral commission later disqualified her from running, saying she had not gathered the required number of signatures.
“The terror has paralyzed people from fighting for their rights,” she said.
In 2014, Rwanda’s exiled former intelligence chief was found strangled in a hotel room in South Africa. Before the 2010 elections, the body of the Democratic Green Party’s vice president was found nearly beheaded by the bank of a river.
Some argue that a degree of authoritarianism is unavoidable if countries such as Rwanda are to be lifted out of poverty.
“The Rwandan model [suggests] . . . that you may actually need quite heavy-handed, highly orchestrated states to achieve the kind of socioeconomic goals that they set for themselves,” said Phil Clark, a political scientist at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. “That’s the difficult reality of the RPF as a party and the difficult reality of Rwanda under Kagame.”
In a phone call, Wellars Gasamagera, a spokesman for the RPF, condemned political violence and denied that his party played any role in deaths of its opponents.
Instead, the ruling party’s explanation for Rwanda’s transformation is that, under its watch, the country unified in the wake of the genocide, coming together to build a new national identity. Crucially, violence has not returned.
“Things like national unity cannot be put into question. Things like security cannot actually be put into jeopardy,” Gasamagera said.
Last Saturday, as they do on the final Saturday of every month, Rwandans across the country gathered for a day of semicompulsory community service, known as “Umuganda,” which translates roughly as “coming together for a common purpose.”
In a suburb near the Kigali airport, some 100 people showed up at a primary school to clean the grounds and prepare classrooms to be used as polling stations Friday.
The volunteers, many of whom wore RPF T-shirts, praised Kagame. One called him a “miracle man.” Yet, in a sign of their wariness about speaking candidly, none agreed to talk on the record.
Events like the service day, which are part of a tradition going back decades, amount to “a local ownership of politics,” said Eric Ndushabandi, director of the Institute of Research and Dialogue for Peace in Kigali, who dismissed the characterization of Kagame as an authoritarian.
“Go through the streets. You will see how ordinary people are proud to be Rwandans,” he said. “I could say those are small Kagames. Those are small leaders who are growing up with the values of a nation, with the values of accountable government.”
Despite repeated predictions of a political crisis, Kagame’s hold on power remains firm. Any serious threat dissipated in 2015, when Rwandans voted overwhelmingly for a constitutional amendment that allowed him to run for a third term. The amendment also created a new system of five-year presidential terms with a two-term limit. That new system does not go into effect until 2024, so Kagame could theoretically run again — twice.
Conceivably, he might not leave office until 2034.
Some human rights groups and Western governments, whose aid money has been crucial to Rwanda’s success, have raised concerns about Kagame’s behavior and his efforts to stay in power. But they have had little effect.
In neighboring Burundi and Congo, presidents have run for third terms without constitutional backing or simply declined to hold new elections at all. A few days after Rwandans go to the polls, Kenya will hold a presidential election amid heightened tensions that analysts fear may devolve into violence.
In comparison, Kagame appears to be a pillar of stability.
“Rwanda is now a country that has set its pace toward development,” said Gasamagera, the RPF spokesman. “Rwanda is a stable country. Rwanda is a secure country, much more than any other country around.”
“This didn’t happen just by chance. We have worked for this.”