Rwanda’s Paul Kagame has once again secured the reigns of political power in the country’s most recent August 2017 presidential elections. This is not the first time Kagame has won a landslide victory, even though he is increasingly unpopular in the country. His continued control of political power amid a suppressed political opposition, allegations of sham elections and political assassinations supports the idea of an illiberal democracy in Rwanda. This article investigates Kagame’s rise to power and his attempts at consolidating his power base.
A glimpse of Rwanda
After gaining independence in 1962 from Belgium, Rwanda’s post-colonial history was plagued by ethnic strife and divisions, between its mainly Hutu majority and Tutsi minority population. Differences between the two ethnic groups were often politicised during the colonial era, culminating in the preferential treatment of the Tutsi over the Hutu population. Continued politicisation of these ethnic and physical differences in the post-colonial period, caused increased resentment and ethnic strife between the two groups, eventually culminating in the 1994 genocide, that saw the killing of over 800 000 people.
The rise of Paul Kagame
Prior to the 1994 genocide, Rwanda was in a state of economic freefall. The deteriorating economic situation coupled with the declining popularity of the sitting Hutu president,⸻ Juvenal Habyarimana saw the formation of a rebel group in Uganda, called the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), headed by Paul Kagame, a Tutsi rebel fighter. Kagame’s rise to power came with the assassination of president Habyarimana, which created a power vacuum in a country reeling from the effects of a devastating genocide. In the aftermath of the 1994 genocide, Kagame’s RPF took over power to end the genocide, and he has remained at the helm ever since, winning the 2003, 2010 and 2017 elections respectively.
Attempts at consolidating power
Many observers argue that elections in Rwanda are “sham” elections, embodying the characteristics of the process but lacking the substantial elements to cause real change. Kagame himself has often referred to the process as a mere “formality”. And has in practice, continually forestalled attempts at establishing a meaningful democratic discourse in the country by suppressing the opposition, ordering political assassinations, and kidnappings and denying the Hutu population a political voice and access to power. His critics call him a “tyrant” and “predator” who has continued to restrict press freedom, through the incarceration and assassination of journalists to stifle the political conversation.
Since assuming political power in 1994, Kagame has won the 2003, 2010 and 2017 elections by a landslide majority, commanding victory margins of 95%, 93% and 98% respectively. In 2015, he amended the constitution in a controversial referendum that was approved by more than 95% of voters, allowing him to run for three more terms, which means he can technically remain in power until 2034. Kagame’s recent victory makes him the latest in a long-line of long-term serving authoritarian rulers in Africa. His uncontested electoral victories have led many human right’s activists’ groups like Amnesty International to argue that elections are taking place in a “climate of fear created by years of repression against opposition politicians, journalists and human rights defenders”.
The recent 2017 election is case in point, as it shows the extent to which the political opposition has been stifled in the country. The election process was largely considered an unlevel playing field, likened to “a one-horse race” because of the lack of viable opponents in the election. The opposition levelled accusations that its supporters were intimidated – which caused low turnout at rallies and argued that local authorities undermined their campaign. In the period leading up to the election, most of the opposition was either disqualified or chose to support the ruling RPF. This made Kagame’s victory eminent, as he ran against two unknown political lightweights; Frank Habineza of the Democratic Green Party – the only permitted critical opposition party- winning 0.45 percent of votes and independent candidate Philippe Mpayimana gaining 0.72.
Even with Kagame’s chequered political history, he remains a “darling” of the west, largely due to the RPF’s role in ending the 1994 genocide, which he has used to “play on the conscience of western powers for failing to intervene to end the genocide”. He continues to enjoy strong support from western powers like the US and the UK because he has used foreign aid more effectively than his African peers and has managed to make “friends” with many western lobby groups. He is often described as “one of America’s friendly tyrants”, displaying the disparagingly close relationship he enjoys with Washington.
A few last words
President Paul Kagame’s recent political victory confirms that state of illiberalism in Rwanda. It exemplifies that elections alone, do not legitimise the process. It is necessary for the conditions for a free and fair process to be present as well. Elections are more than voting at the polls every four or so years. For elections to have meaningful significance on the political discourse, there should be a viable political opposition that has a realistic chance of securing power. The political opposition should not be restrained by the incumbent party and there should be a free press that offers an alternative political narrative. While Rwanda is not alone in the long list of African countries that subscribe to an illiberal form of democracy, it is vital that we as observers do not adopt a complacent attitude towards this increasingly disturbing trend, which can eventually rid us of our democratic ethos.
As a famous political philosopher once said, “All tyranny needs to gain a foothold is for people of good conscience to remain silent”⸻ Edmund Burke.