Rwanda’s Upcoming Presidential Elections

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Danielle BeswickDanielle Beswick is a lecturer in IDD.  Her research interests include management of political space and debate in a post-genocide society, Rwanda’s relationship with the UK, and Rwandan foreign and security policy in Africa, including contributions to peacekeeping.  She teaches Conflict in Developing Countries and Post Conflict Reconstruction and Development and co-convenes a module on War Torn States and Post Conflict Reconstruction in the South.

Rwanda’s story since 1994 is a remarkable one: a country and society devastated by genocide has emerged as an internally peaceful, politically stable and economically developing state, regarded by some as a model for post-conflict reconstruction. In many respects Rwanda has come a long way since 1994, but in others the legacy of the 100 days in which 800,000 Tutsi and moderate Hutu were killed by soldiers, militias, neighbours, and friends has left an indelible mark on Rwanda’s politics.

On August 9th Rwandan citizens will cast their votes in the second post-genocide Presidential election. The result is unlikely to be surprising, with current President Paul Kagame widely expected to win by a margin similar to the 95% he achieved in 2003. His party, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), is the political wing of the armed group led by Kagame in 1994. This force ended the genocide when the UN, despite having a peacekeeping mission on the ground, proved unwilling to do so. Kagame’s likely victory partly reflects the RPFs dominance of Rwandan politics since 1994 and the key role they played in stopping the killing, but it also reflects two quite different faces of contemporary Rwanda.

OLPC Rwanda WorkshopPhoto credit: One Laptop per Child

OLPC Rwanda Workshop, 2008

On one hand, Rwanda is often praised for its achievements since 1994. During the genocide the social fabric of the country, and trust between citizens and state, was destroyed. Hundreds of thousands of refugees fled the country, while even more – including some who had been living abroad since as long ago as 1959 – returned. Despite these challenges, under Kagame’s leadership elections have been held and reforms such as decentralisation have taken place. The country has achieved annual economic growth of around 6% and has the highest proportion of female parliamentarians anywhere in the world. An ambitious development plan, ‘Vision 2020’, sees Rwanda ‘leapfrogging’ the stages of development followed by countries such as the UK. It is embracing ICT, aiming to create a service based economy and financial hub in the heart of Africa. Rwanda has also been praised for its innovation, amending an existing local courts system, gacaca, to process the hundreds of thousands of perpetrators of genocide. Finally, it is currently one of the top 10 providers of troops to UN peacekeeping missions, contributing heavily to the UN mission in Darfur. Much of this progress is attributed to the focus, determination and commitment of President Kagame.

Paul KagamePhoto credit: United Nations Photo

President Paul Kagame

However, critics highlight another side of Kagame’s single-mindedness when it comes to Rwanda’s development. Whilst elections may take place there is little tolerance of dissent. Newspapers which challenge the ruling party are often banned, and critics harassed or forced into exile. The shooting of a Rwandan dissident in Johannesburg in recent weeks is seen by critics as part of a wider pattern of silencing criticism and neutralising challenges to the RPF, at home or abroad.  In 2009, Rwanda faced censure and aid cuts for its relationship with Congolese warlord Laurent Nkunda, seen as protecting Rwanda’s economic interests in resources being looted from Eastern DRC.

The president is elected for 7 years, and can serve up to 2 terms. Whilst the election result on August 9th is not in doubt it still remains to be seen which face of Rwanda – developmental, committed and innovative; or tightly managed and politically closed – will win out afterwards. There is a great deal the region and the world can learn from Rwanda’s experience, but it remains to be seen whether the strong vision represented by Kagame can be maintained for the next 7 years, and whether, when the time comes, a peaceful transition to a new leadership is possible. Recent experiences from Uganda and Kenya suggest there are reasons for pessimism.

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