KAGAME:Collateral damage

Published on by KANYARWANDA

In five weeks, Rwandans will go to the polls to elect a president. The incumbent, Paul Kagame, head of the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front, continues to exert total control over the country's election process.

Rwandans in canadaKagame, who came to power as the leader of a rebel army, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), that ended the 1994 genocide, legitimised his rule in 2003 when he won the presidential elections with 95% of the vote. Anywhere else in Africa, and indeed the world, such a result would indicate that Kagame was hardly elected in free and fair elections. Despite the fact that Amnesty International, the European Union, Human Rights Watch and the United Nations found serious irregularities and widespread oppression in the elections, Kagame won praise from major donors such as the United States and the United Kingdom for his thoughtful and benevolent leadership of Rwanda's rebirth as a model recipient of international aid.

In advance of the upcoming presidential elections, many within the international community have remained supportive of Rwanda's so-called "democratic transition". They seem to ignore the widespread arrests of journalists and opposition politicians, the closing of independent Rwandan newspapers, ejection of a Human Rights Watch researcher, an assassination attempt against exiled General Kayumba Nyamasa who had a falling out with Kagame, and the killing of journalist Jean-Leonard Rugambage who attempted to report on the assassination attempt in the online version of a Rwandan newspaper whose print edition had been closed down by the government.

'No government is perfect'
While diplomats and policymakers from some countries, like Sweden and The Netherlands, have cut their aid, others like the United States and the United Kingdom continue to publicly support Kagame. As an American diplomat currently based in Kigali said, "Of course this government is not perfect. But no government is. The position of many in the diplomatic corps is to gently nudge the RPF towards democracy." In other words, key donors like the US and the UK view the continued harassment and intimidation of political opponents and critical journalists as par for the course in the transition from civil war and genocide to democracy.

While diplomats quietly acknowledge this repression of elites, there is no public acknowledgement of the impact of the elections on average Rwandans.

In Rwanda, politics is the preserve of elite actors, who represent about 10% of the population. Average Rwandans such as rural farmers, teachers, nurses, low level civil servants, traders, or soldiers who make up the remaining 90% of the population have virtually no say in politics. In November 2009 a group of rural farmers resident in southern Rwanda sought to register a new political party to put forward their own presidential candidate. Several of them were arrested without charge, and the presumed organisers remain in prison; the rest fled to neighbouring Burundi. Indeed, average Rwandans are the first to suffer when elites use all available tactics to gain political power. As the Swahili proverb goes, "When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers".

Silencing critical voices
A climate of fear and insecurity predominates in the everyday life of average Rwandans. Anyone who questions RPF policies or its treatment of its opposition and critics can be beaten, harrassed or intimidated into submission. Those who are perceived as sympathetic to the political opposition can be arrested, "disappeared", or like Rugambage, murdered. The number of political prisoners as well as those who have disappeared is unknown. Human Rights Watch reports that repression of political freedoms in a strategy of the RPF to "silence critical voices and independent reporting before the elections".

The strategy of repression means that none of the three main opposition parties -- Democratic Green Party of Rwanda, FDU-Inkingi and PS-Imberakuri -- are able to take part in the elections. Distant family members of opposition politicians and critical journalists find themselves under constant surveillance. As a result, the vast majority of the population waits silently and anxiously for the elections, hoping that they are perceived as model citizens so as to avoid attracting unwanted attention from government loyalists.

Rwandans are more than skeptical about the government's commitment to democracy. They recognise the upcoming presidential elections as a form of social control to ensure they vote for the right party (meaning Kagame's RPF). As an aide to the minister of local government said, "In 2010, the people will also vote as we instruct them. This means that those who vote against us understand that they can be left behind. To embrace democracy is to embrace the development ideas of President Kagame".

Published on politics

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