After more than 17 years of presidency, all seems to be rosy for the incumbent Rwandan President, Paul Kagame as Rwandan goes to the polls today.
The incumbent President took over reigns of leadership when his rebel army ended the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of people in 1994 where over 800,000 Rwandan lost their lives in a tribal war.
He was sworn in as vice-president and defence minister in a post-genocide government in July 1994, but was widely seen as the real power in Rwanda and in 2000 the parliament elected him president.
He contested and won his first presidential elections in 2003 and was reelected in 2010, and through a unanimous referendum was cleared for an unprecedented third term in the election that will take place today.
While his admirers see him as a visionary leader, to his critics he is a despot who tolerates no opposition, a tyrant who is trampling on freedom, uses the army to assert his authority, and uses “anti-genocide” legislation to clamp down on opponents.
In his election manifesto, the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front pledged under whose platform Kagema is re-contesting, promised to create more jobs, partner with private companies to encourage new industry, build about 3,800 kilometers (2,361 miles) of roads and increase mineral exploitation.
Kagame will face two challengers in the presidential race: Frank Habineza, the leader of the Democratic Green Party of Rwanda, who wasn’t allowed to run in the 2010 vote and fled to exile into Europe after his deputy was killed and Mpayimana Philippe, a former journalist with no political experience who’s standing as an independent candidate.
Three other hopefuls were barred from contesting after the National Electoral Commission decreed that they hadn’t complied with a requirement to collect 600 signatures supporting their candidacy.
Since his election 17 years ago, Rwanda has been transformed from a war ravaged country to a nation with huge investment in infrastructure which can be compared to any other developing country and with policies that has entrenched discipline, equal rights and development among all sectors hence his re-election some say, is a foregone conclusion.
Kagame’s government has transformed Rwanda’s economy into one of the continent’s top performers, improving internet access, roads and electricity supplies.
However, there is a popular belief that the International community including, Amnesty International and Human Rights groups feel that he has perfected ways to perpetuate himself in power. Hence according to them, the credibility of the election has been compromised through a violent crackdown on his opponents.
Amnesty last month urged the government to desist from harassment of opposition candidates and their supporters and also start reforms to open up political space before the 2024 elections to allow genuine debate.
Kagame won 93 percent of the last presidential vote in 2010 and reaffirmed his political dominance in 2015, when more than 98 percent of the 6.28 million people who cast ballots in a referendum voted in favor of a constitutional change that will enable him to stand for a third seven-year term. As a result of the referendum, he was allowed to run for two further terms of five years each, potentially validating his eligibility to run for presidency until 2034.
Addressing Rwandans at the end of the referendum, Kagame said, “You requested me to lead the country again after 2017. Given the importance and consideration you attach to this, I can only accept. You clearly expressed your choices for the future of our country. The process allowed us the time to make certain, that the proposed changes had merit and wisdom”.
He was nevertheless quick to deny that he does not intend to be a life president, “What remains is to follow the normal laws and procedures when the time comes. But I do not think our aim is to have a president for life, nor is it what I would want,” he said.
Kagame will remain central in policy making in Rwanda for the foreseeable future, bar any personal health issues or other unexpected events.
Investors are likely to view the high probability of policy continuity and Kagame’s developmental agenda as more important than grievances of transgressions of freedom of speech and other human rights ,said Mark Bohlund, Africa economist with Bloomberg Intelligence in London.”
Kagame’s closest rivalry, Frank Habineza running under Democratic Green Party of Rwanda (DGPR) who had earlier threatened to pull out of the election has confirmed his participation and is in high spirit to unseat the incumbent President.
After deliberations within the party’s political bureau we concluded that participating in the elections was more beneficial than boycotting despite the existing challenges,” said Jean Claude Ntezimana, the party’s secretary-general in a statement.
In his acceptance speech after his nomination by his party, he said, “We want to bring democracy to this country. Democracy does not fall from heaven, it will not come from America or Europe, we are the ones who must fight for it,” Habineza said.
Also speaking to a Swedish Newspaper Dagen, Habineza said that they have greater chance of becoming the next tenants of “Urugwiro Village” which is the seat of power.
“I think people are tired of having had the same president for 20 years. They want change and I have strong support within the army, the police and the people. So I think we have a great chance now.
We want to put an end to the monotony in the Rwandan parliament and give Rwandans a vibrant opposition that will hold the government accountable,” said Mr Ntezimana.
The Green Party became the first opposition party to name a presidential aspirant, and its contender became the second after President Kagame, who threw his hat into the ring in January just after the constitutional amendment that allowed him to run for a third term.
The Green Party is the only party that opposed the reform of the Constitution, which was finally adopted in December 2015.
About 6.8 million people have registered to cast ballots. Polls open at 7 a.m. local time and close at 3 p.m., with the electoral commission expecting to announce the winner on Friday evening.