President Paul Kagame, Rwanda’s leader since 1994, could effectively rule until 2034 due to a constitutional referendum. If Kagame is re-elected on August 4 and serves his allotted terms to completion, he will be one of the longest-running African leaders in history.
Kagame’s tenure as president began after one of the worst genocides in contemporary history, where the Hutu led government of Rwanda sponsored the mass killing of the Tutsi population. His leadership helped guide a torn nation towards improved stability and increased economic growth, says The Brookings Institute.
His continued governance, reports the Brookings Institute, could move the country, and perhaps the region, further into middle-income status and a stable democracy. However, his prolonged control could also hinder the very democracy he has tried to promote.
Kagame, a Tutsi, began as the leader of the Rwandan Patriotic Army, which overthrew the previous government in 1994 to end the Hutu-sponsored genocide. He then served as the de facto leader of Rwanda in 1994 as the Vice-President and Minister for Defense. He continued as the chairman of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) from 1998 until the Transitional National Assembly elected him to the presidency in 2000, according to Africa News.
Rwanda held its first democratic elections in 2003, according to Human Rights Watch, where Kagame was elected with 95 percent of the vote. In 2010 he won again with 93 percent of the vote, which was expected to be his final term until the recent referendum.
In 2015, Rwandans voted for presidential terms to be reduced from seven to five years, while maintaining the existing two-term limit, says BBC. Because the change will not take effect until 2024, Kagame could seek a third seven-year term, then two five-year terms if he chooses to.
Rwandans overwhelmingly supported the referendum with more than 98 percent voting in favor, says Human Rights Watch, signaling Kagame’s popularity. “They wanted me, through the constitutional referendum of December 2015, to continue my work, which I accepted,” Kagame told Jeune Afrique earlier this year. “But the time has come to tell them that they must start thinking, beyond my person.”
Despite Kagame’s initial willingness to step down and allow for new leadership, he quickly changed his mind and continued to run.
The international community, particularly the United States and the European Union, disapproves of the unchanging leadership, said John Mbaku, Ph.D., a nonresident senior fellow with the Africa Growth Initiative. Mbaku stated that despite the U.S.’ longstanding support of Kagame, the extension of his mandate is shifting how he is perceived internationally.
However, many Rwandans do not share the international community’s hesitancy as they believe the government could fail under a new president, said Africa News. This is because the current government and its institutions were crafted around Kagame post-genocide, allowing him to rule autocratically. Kagame dismissed these fears, and does not believe that Rwanda is ready for a new leader, The Harvard Political Review reports.
With the memory of the genocide still fresh in the hearts and minds of voters, Rwandans fear that if Kagame is forced out of power, sectarian violence could return to the country, said Mbaku. “Despite the fact that the country is quite peaceful, many people in Rwanda, including members of the opposition, have not forgotten the horrific events of 1994 and do not want any return to sectarian violence.”
What makes the issue so complex is that unlike other African leaders, such as Pierre Nkurunziza in neighboring Burundi, Kagame made significant improvements to peace and security, said Mbaku. Kagame transformed the economy and made it the envy of Rwanda’s neighbors, with its GDP growing at 8 percent per annum since 1996, reports The International Observer.
The idea that Kagame should step down gained enough momentum that four Rwandans declared their candidacy against him in the early stages of the election. These candidates included Frank Habineza, Diane Rwigara, Phillipe Mpayimana, and Thomas Nahimana. Frank Habineza is the leader of the Democratic Green Party of Rwanda, the only registered opposition party to the current leadership, says Africa News.
Rwigara is a 35-year-old business woman, and was the first-ever female independent presidential candidate, Face 2 Face Africa reports. She hoped to tackle poverty, injustice, and corruption, as she felt the government was unsuccessful in its attempts. Rwigara’s father, a businessman and former ally of Kagame, died under controversial circumstances in 2015 in what officials insist was a car accident. His family, however, believes he was the victim of a politically motivated murder, says Face 2 Face Africa.
If true, this would not be the only allegation, as Human Rights Watch reports that the opposition party has previously accused the RPF of killing political opponents. “Kagame has increasingly become intolerant of political opposition,” says Mbaku, “and his government has seriously limited competitive politics in the country,” a process which threatens the country’s embryonic democracy.
Both Mpayimana and Nahimana lived as exiles, and hope to return for their political aspirations. Mpayimana is a former journalist who fled Rwanda in 1994, lived in exile in France and Belgium, and is running as an independent candidate, says The EastAfrican.
Nahimana is a former Catholic priest who lived in exile in France since 2005, The International Business Times reports. The Catholic Church in Rwanda accused him of being a “genocide denier,” and expelled him from the Cyangungu Diocese where he used to preach. Nahimana, a Hutu, is believed to have partaken in the genocide, and ran on the Ishema party ticket.
In order to win, candidates need 600 signatures, including at least 12 from all of Rwanda’s 30 voting districts, VOA reports. These signatures must be acquired after only three weeks of campaigning, says VOA, putting challengers to the incumbent at a disadvantage.
The Rwandan government further restricted candidates by limiting one of the most powerful campaign tools available: social media. With the short time frame to campaign, candidates would ideally use social media to reach a wider audience and remain connected to their voter base. Rwanda’s National Electoral Commission (NEC), a government sponsored organization, passed a directive requiring any campaign related post to be screened, according to the Associated Press. The Commission can also edit any pictures, videos, and text that are screened.
Campaign content on sites such as Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, Instagram, and YouTube must be submitted to the NEC 48 hours in advance for approval, according to Human Rights Watch. Despite these strict regulations, the executive secretary of the NEC, Charles Munyaneza, said the directive is only for regulation, not censorship.
Human Rights Watch argues that any regulation which seeks to restrict a candidate’s ability to campaign and reach out to voters is not necessary, and is instead an attack on the freedom of speech. One analyst told The EastAfrican that the directive could also sever as a tool to prevent opponents from criticizing current policies.
In addition to censoring the opposition’s social media posts, the government restricted the proliferation of physical campaign signs. The Associated Press reports that candidates are prohibited from displaying campaign posters in markets, school premises, bus parks, churches, and hospitals.
Human Rights Watch’s fears were realized when the Rwandan government disqualified both Diane Rwigara, and Thomas Nahimana in early July, reports Africa News. According to the NEC, their disqualification was attributed to their inability to raise sufficient signatures. Additionally, Rwigara was accused of “forging the signature of 26 voters,” including signatures “belonging to the deceased,” reports Africa News.
Censorship laws are not new to Rwanda, as print media and radio broadcast were used for Hutu propaganda during the genocide, The Harvard Political Review. The memory of genocide linked free media and violence in the public conscious, which the government uses as a justification for controlling media and journalism standards.
The restriction of basic rights, such as a free press, prompted the E.U. to send election monitors to Rwanda for previous elections. This year, however, the E.U. is “unlikely” to send any, said Michael Ryan, head of the E.U. delegation to Rwanda, due to Kagame’s near certain victory.
“Despite the fact that many in the international community have criticized his approach to governance, Kagame remains extremely popular in Rwanda,” Mbaku said. Many Rwandans even believe the election’s results are already predetermined and that President Kagame will be reelected says Human Rights Watch.
Kagame continues to be a key figure in Rwanda’s post conflict reconstruction, and crafted the current political system with himself as its epicenter. Despite his past success in improving the country’s conditions, his long standing administration, coupled with his restrictions on the opposition, could signal uncertainty for the nation’s future. This Friday, Rwandans go to the polls with the fear of sectarian violence in their hearts and their county’s future on their minds.