Rwanda 2010 and the African Elections Game

Rwanda held a much overrated presidential election on August 9, the second since the end of the Rwandan Genocide and the Tutsi victory in the 1994 civil war.

Rwanda, the country of a thousand hills, is known in the world for the infamous genocide of 1994 and for the ethnic clashes between the Hutu majority and the Tutsi minority (the Twas have been conveniently forgotten about). The pastoral Tutsi aristocracy dominated the Kingdom of Rwanda, with German and then Belgian support, until the Hutus took power in 1959 and declared a republic in 1962. Many Tutsis fled the dictatorial Hutu-dominated regimes of Grégoire Kayibanda and General Juvénal Habyarimana, fleeing mostly to Uganda. Encouraged by the harsh refugee laws and the anti-Rwandan policies of Milton Obote, many of these Tutsis participated in the civil war which brought Yoweri Museveni to power in Kampala in 1986. These Tutsi refugees, grouped in the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF-FPR) invaded Rwanda in 1990 and threatened Hutu power in Kigali. The civil war was actually almost over when the genocide started, sparked by the death of Habyarimana in a plane crash when he was returning from Arusha, Tanzania, where a power-sharing agreement and some sort of deal to return to democratic politics had been reached between the RPF and the government. The plane crash, whose perpetrators were never found, led to a radical Hutu backlash against Tutsis and moderate Hutus, leading some to believe that Habyarimana’s assassination was organized by the radical Hutus and backed by France, which at that time was a key supporter of the Hutu-led Habyarimana government. The genocide of summer 1994, which killed 800,000, led the RPF to seize control of the country by fall 1994 and establish a national unity government of its own, led by President Pasteur Bizimungu (a moderate Hutu), largely known to be the facade puppet of Paul Kagame, the Tutsi RPF rebel leader. Kagame assumed the presidency in 2000 and quickly sidelined Bizimungu and other moderate Hutu supporters of the RPF.

Under Paul Kagame, the government has sought to break the ethnic cleavages by downplaying the importance of the main ethnicities in Rwanda and forging some sort of national unity sentiment, one which came with tough laws on genocide denial, laws which allow the Tutsi-led government to claim the mantle of victimization and persecute Hutu opponents of the regime by branding them as racists and genocide-deniers. Born into a Tutsi aristocratic family and supported by a party whose members are largely well-educated, Kagame has been a successful president for Rwanda’s economy. His liberal policies have led to important economic growth in the country, which likes to use its new image as a peaceful multi-ethnic society in its bid to become the “Singapore of east Africa”. This economic growth comes at a high price, that of flagrant human rights violations. NGOs report routine torture, extrajudicial killings, violence and arbitrary arrests of suspected opponents. Press freedom is unheard of, and The Economist wrote that Kagame allowed his citizens less freedom than Mugabe does in Zimbabwe. The government, however, remains keen on feeding the world its image of a democratic united society, thus the need for this election. For the majority of Rwandans, however, Kagame got them out of civil war, brought peace and ‘justice’ and most certainly brought much longed for economic prosperity. It’s not wrong to say that Kagame is vastly popular with the electorate as a whole.

The RPF’s main opponents, be they Hutus like Victoire Ingabire or Tutsi rivals, were dealt with quickly. Ingabire was conveniently branded a radical genocide-denier, and throw in jail (now released on bail), while many Tutsi rivals of the RPF were found dead at various points this year. Therefore, the only opponents to Kagame’s re-election for seven-year term came from hand-picked “opponents” of the FPR, three of them in fact. Three tools which had supported Kagame in 2003 and who still didn’t oppose him in the correct sense of the word this year. Kagame, who won 95% in 2003, has seen his popularity dwindle since then, since he won “only” 93.08% of the votes this year, against 5.15% for Jean Damascene Ntawukuriryayo (a former cabinet minister and vice-president of the Chamber of Deputies), Prosper Higiro (a former cabinet minister and vice-president of the Senate) followed with 1.37% while Senator Alvera Mukabaramba got 0.4%. Turnout out of the country’s 5.1 million voters was heavy, reaching 4.9 million.

There were no reports of vote rigging in this election. We might be tempted to scoff at such reports, but it’s not necessarily a lie. As of late, there has been a trend in Africa to see more elections and people demanding a chance to vote. Most of sub-Saharan Africa is voting this year in whatever type of elections. Part of this comes from people demanding to lash out at corrupt archaic politicians, but a lot of it comes from western insistence that countries step it up on the democratic front if they want precious aid money. The end of the Cold War means that dictator’s can’t hold on without making fake gestures towards democratic institutions. Though Guinea’s ongoing election, Kenya’s recent referendum and even Somaliland’s election (Somaliland is an unrecognized state) are encouraging, there being elections doesn’t stop ruling dictators from rigging the vote. However, they’ve learned how to avoid blatant rigging – that looks bad for the country (see: Iran), and instead they favour pre-poll rigging, which consists of eliminating potential opponents and playing games with the electoral register which often discourage the opposition into boycotting the elections. That is what happened in Burundi’s recent election (President Nkurunziza won 92%, unopposed), Ethiopia’s parliamentary election (with the opposition winning 2/547 seats) as well as Sudan’s spring election (al-Bashir was easily re-elected with token opposition). Observers are holding out hope that long overdue elections in Côte d’Ivoire in October and a big election in Nigeria next year will bring a semblance of democracy.

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Posted on August 11, 2010, in Rwanda. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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