In Rwanda, stability outweighs democracy

KIGALI, RWANDA — KIGALI, Rwanda - President Paul Kagame raised his fist at a rally the other day, and the thousands of people gathered around him, ethnic Hutu and Tutsi alike, did the same. "Oye!" the president yelled. "Oye!" the people responded.

With days to go before the first presidential election since the mass killings in Rwanda in 1994, Kagame clearly has the crowds on his side. They wear his T-shirts and caps and wave tiny flags that his campaign puts into their hands. When he cheers, they cheer along with him.


But many question whether the campaign leading up to the election tomorrow has been truly democratic. In recent months, a leading opposition party, the Democratic Republican Movement, has been banned, and critics of the government have been thrown in jail. Journalists deemed too critical have been detained.

"This presidential election is a done deal," said Francois Grignon, an Africa specialist with the International Crisis Group, a research organization based in Brussels, Belgium. Grignon is monitoring the election from Nairobi, Kenya because he was banned from Rwanda after he produced a report critical of Kagame's Rwanda Patriotic Front, known by the initials RPF.


"The RPF wields almost exclusive military, political and economic control and tolerates no criticism or challenge to its authority," the report said.

Kagame's main opponent, former Prime Minister Faustin Twagiramungu, is struggling to reach the voters. With his party banned, he is running as an independent. Many of his supporters have been harassed by the police. His rallies have often been canceled because the government must endorse his campaign appearances and the approvals often come too late.

On government radio and television, the race sounds like a one-man show. Kagame's campaign receives prominent mention. When Twagiramungu's name (pronounced Twa-gira-MUN-gu) does come up, he is usually being criticized for being divisive, a serious accusation in a country where more than 800,000 ethnic Tutsi and moderate Hutu were killed by Hutu in 1994.

Voters clearly feel the pressure. The few who say they plan to vote for Twagiramungu do so nervously, looking around for government agents as they speak. And not everybody who attends a Kagame rally is a devotee. "People do what the government says," said a farmer who attended a rally on Thursday in the east. "If you don't go to hear the president, somebody might notice."

Still, Kagame is far more popular than his government's actions indicate. He led the rebel movement that swept in from Uganda in 1994 to oust the Interahamwe Hutu militias, which were responsible for much of the violence. Although his troops have been accused of excesses, Kagame is widely credited with helping to restore stability in this tiny Central African country.

Wiping out the ethnic distinctions that have run so deep has been one of his hallmarks. No longer do Rwandans carry cards that identify them as Hutu or Tutsi. No longer does the national anthem bring up ethnicity. The new constitution makes it a crime to preach ethnic hatred.

But even as Kagame insists that Hutu and Tutsi ought to regard themselves as Rwandans above all else, ethnicity remains a subtext to the presidential contest. Kagame is a Tutsi, and his three opponents are Hutu. The two lesser-known challengers are Nepomuscene Nayinzira and Alivera Mukabaramba.

Kagame became vice president in 1994 as part of an agreement ending the Rwandan civil strife. Twagiramungu was the prime minister in that coalition government, which included both Hutu, who make up about 85 percent of the population, and Tutsi, who constitute about 14 percent. The remaining 1 percent are the Twas.


But Kagame's Tutsi-dominated party has been in control all along. Twagiramungu was pushed out in 1995 and went into exile. Dozens of other critics of Kagame's government have left the country. When Pasteur Bizimungu, another Hutu politician, resigned as president in 2000 and set up a rival party, the government immediately banned it. Kagame took over the Rwandan presidency in a secret-ballot election by government ministers and legislators. His government jailed Bizimungu last year, charging him with illegal political activity and threats to state security.

Twagiramungu, who returned from exile in Belgium several months ago to start his campaign, has been similarly accused of reopening ethnic wounds.