AS Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame takes up the reins of power again, his once-gleaming halo looks distinctly lacklustre.

For many years he was regarded as the saviour of a nation torn apart by genocide and, on the face of it, there is much to be admired.

Loading article content

Take the representation of women, for example. Here his commitment to gender equality is extremely impressive with females comprising half of the supreme court judges. Rwanda also boasts the highest proportion of women in parliament in the world at 61 per cent.

Then there is the fact that the country’s economy was in tatters when his party, the RPF, took over and imposed order after the genocide which saw 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus slaughtered.

Now poverty levels have dropped and the country’s economy is thriving at an average rate of seven per cent per year.

Under Kagame’s leadership, Rwanda has improved its infrastructure, set up its first maize floor factory as well as a national airline and is currently constructing a £605m international airport and £300m conference centre aimed at boosting the country’s status as an African business hub.

Kagame’s peers also seem to regard him highly and he has been asked to lead attempts to reform the Africa Union.


UNFORTUNATELY not, as Kagame shares another, less admirable trait of many of the current batch of African leaders and that is a strong reluctance to relinquish power.

To a certain extent this is understandable as he has not only kept the country stable despite the tensions caused by the horrors of the early 1990s but has also built it up again impressively quickly.

It seems, too, that the electorate agree he is the right person for the presidency, voting in their droves to keep him in power in last week’s elections.

However there is a more sinister side to his popularity betrayed by the suspicious lack of any coherent opposition.

Critics claim he brutally suppresses dissent and his two rivals in Friday’s election, who were resoundingly trounced, say their supporters were intimidated and prevented from exercising their democratic rights.

Independent candidate Philippe Mpayimana and Frank Habineza of the Democratic Green Party of Rwanda made a barely noticeable dent in Kagame’s support. The president now has the chance of staying in power until 2034 following a recent constitutional referendum, which gained an unlikely 98 per cent backing from voters, to allow him to stand for another two terms.

He said afterwards that he didn’t want to be an “eternal leader” but it looks as though he has done his best to try and make that happen.


LEADING human rights group Amnesty International said Friday’s election took place in a “climate of fear created by years of repression against opposition politicians, journalists and human rights defenders”.

“They have been jailed, physically attacked — even killed — and forced into exile or silence,” said Amnesty. A recent case involved Violette Uwamahoro, a pregnant Rwandan-British woman, who was seized earlier this year when she visited the country to go to her father’s funeral and accused of trying to undermine Kagame, helping to form an armed group and sharing state secrets. Uwamahoro, who was later released on bail, says she was arrested because her husband, Faustin Rukundo, is a member of opposition party, the Rwanda National Congress (RNC).

The president, however, claims to be a champion of democracy and was one of the first African leaders to embrace social media, setting up a website and accounts on Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and Instagram.

It’s a tad ironic considering media watchdog Reporters Without Borders call him a “predator” who crushes the freedom of the press. Over the last 20 years, eight journalists have gone missing or have been killed, 11 have been given lengthy prison sentences and 33 have fled the country in fear of their lives.


AS for Kagame’s commitment to gender equality, it’s all window dressing according to Diane Rwigara, who was barred against standing for election. The National Electoral Commission imposed the ruling last month on “technical grounds”.

Rwigara, who claims her father was murdered for opposing the regime, was not surprised at the ban. “The RPF are scared,” she said. “If they are loved by the people, as they claim, why is that when someone like me announces an intention to run they resort to all these dirty tricks to try to discourage me and silence me? If they were really popular, then they would have let me compete.”

The 35-year-old businesswoman is typical of many of the younger generation of Rwandans who no longer see Kagame and his party as the answer to all their problems. Many flocked to Rwigara’s press conferences, unsettling Kagame and his followers. Soon after pictures of Rwigara naked were released anonymously on the internet.

“They used my being a woman to get to me,” she said. “But even if I’d been a man they’d have found other ways.”

Rwigara believes the women in parliament merely rubber stamp the president’s policies.

“Rwanda is like a very pretty girl with a lot of makeup,” she said. “Perfect teeth, perfect hair, perfect everything. They spend so much time on the image because they know the inside is dark and dirty.”