Ghost of genocide haunts Rwanda poll

The Tutsi leader Paul Kagame is expected to win the presidential election, in which his critics were prevented from running.

NAIROBI // The effects of genocide linger long, long after the last blood is spilled, not only in the lives of the bereaved but also collectively, in their politics. Thus, when Rwandans head to the polls today to choose a president, the ghosts of the mass killings that occurred 16 years ago will be there, too.

Paul Kagame, from the minority Tutsi ethnic group, is looking for another seven-year term. The former rebel leader, whose Rwandan Patriotic Front ended the genocide in 1994 and replaced the extremist Hutu regime that perpetrated it, has been campaigning on his record of bringing development to Rwanda in the last decade. Analysts say Mr Kagame should win easily - he took 95 per cent of the vote in 2003 - but it is unclear if that is because of his popularity or because he has silenced his opponents, often in the name of preventing a flare-up in ethnic killing, if not another genocide. Mr Kagame, a darling of western donors, said that democracy is flourishing in Rwanda.

"When people choose what they want, that is democracy," he said at a recent campaign rally in Kigali, the capital. "When they reject negative forces and divisionism, that is democracy. When they choose the leadership they want, that is democracy. Whoever does not like the Rwanda way of democracy should go and hang." Rwanda has become a success story for development in Africa. After Mr Kagame and the Rwandan Patriotic Front took power in 1994, he solicited reconstruction aid from the United States and European countries - the same countries he regularly and bitterly accused of failing to stop the genocide, which left some 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus dead.

Today, the compact, densely populated agrarian country tucked into central Africa's emerald hills is clean and efficient. Roads are paved, streets are swept and Kigali is abuzz with the construction of high-rise buildings. Indeed, Rwanda's economy has prospered on the back of foreign investment in the technology and tourism sectors. The state is now providing free education and health care to almost all of its citizens and the country has been at peace for 16 years.

Donors, many contrite over their failure to help to halt the genocide, lavished praise and money upon Mr Kagame's regime. Most of the praise was deserved and most of the money went where it was intended. Meanwhile, Mr Kagame became friends with the former US presidents Bill Clinton and George W Bush and the former British prime minister Tony Blair, whose countries underwrote much of Rwanda's development.

But under the surface, Mr Kagame's human-rights record and the government's treatment of the majority Hutus went south, critics say. Rwanda has become a police state, they say, where dissent is often branded as "divisionism" and where preventing a recurrence of genocide is used as pretext to curb civil liberties and suppress political opposition. Insecurity and political repression have been increasing ahead of the vote, according to Human Rights Watch, a New York-based advocacy group.

"The security situation is rapidly deteriorating," said Rona Peligal, the Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "The government is lashing out to silence its opponents and critics." A Human Rights Watch researcher was expelled from the country in the run-up to the vote. A journalist who was critical of the government was shot and killed in June, and opposition politicians have been arrested and intimidated, Human Rights Watch said.

Last week 30 Rwandan media organisations were suspended by the Rwanda Media High Council. Reporters Without Borders, a press freedom watchdog, said the suspensions amount to a blackout on independent media coverage of the election. "The Media High Council's measures, coming just a few days before the election, are highly suspect," Reporters Without Borders said in a statement. "The aim is to clamp down on the press and prevent journalists from doing their job as independent and impartial observers of the election process."

Last month, Andre Rwisereka, the deputy director of the opposition Green Party and a government critic, was shot and killed. This followed the attempted murder in South Africa of Faustin Nyamwasa, a former general turned opposition figure who had fled Rwanda in February. Both incidents appear politically motivated. The three opposition candidates who have been cleared to stand against Mr Kagame are close to his regime, while three other outspoken parties were barred by the electoral commission. Mr Kagame's challengers include Damascene Ntawukuliryayo, the deputy speaker of parliament who is seen as the closest contender, Prosper Higiro, the vice president of the senate, and Alvera Mukabaramba of the Party of Peace and Concord.

A team of 2,000 local and international observers, including some from the Commonwealth, will monitor the poll, according to Charles Munyaneza, the director of the National Electoral Commission. He predicted that this election will be closer than Mr Kagame's landslide victory in 2003. Half of Rwanda's 10 million people are registered voters. About 100,000 Rwandans, most Hutus, are living abroad, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

"Judging from what I see from this election campaign I find this more competitive and more active than the 2003 elections," he said. "That makes me think that it's not going to be a one-horse race." mbrown@thenational.ae