Rwanda Reconfirms Stability Over Freedom: Understanding The Illiberal Democracy Built By Paul Kagame

On August 4th, 2017, Rwandans headed to the polls to elect a president. The results showed a very much expected 99% in favour of the incumbent President Paul Kagame. Since 2000, Kagame has uninterruptedly ruled the country which he proudly addresses as a democracy. Nonetheless, although Kagame has led Rwanda to several socio-economic improvements and genuinely enjoys the respect of his people, a debate has grown over the paradox of a democracy which year after year increasingly looks like a dictatorship based on indirect control of consensus through biased information and creation of mythologies.

For many African Leaders, the popularity of Paul Kagame is rooted in decades of fighting against unpopular political settlements. After joining the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) in the 1980’s, he dedicated his life to the fight for the rights of the Tutsis, the ethnic minority he belonged to. In the 1990’s when militia groups began rounding up and killing Tutsis en masse, in what is remembered as one of the most terrifying genocides of contemporary times, Kagame directed RPF forces based in Uganda and Tanzania to invade the country. Undoubtedly, Kagame occupies a particularly positive position in the history of Rwanda and is reminded and mythicized as the hero who led the country to stability and the author of his people’s destiny.

Before rising to power as President, Kagame served the country from 1994 to 2000 first as Vice President and then as Minister of Defence. Already considered the “de facto” president by its people, he was elected president with an almost unanimous consensus in 2000 and then re-elected in 2010.

In 2015, 98% of the population voted in favour of a referendum passing a  constitutional amendment that allowed Kagame to seek a third seven-year term followed by two five-year terms. This decision revealed Rwandans strong favour for their current president, which, following the constitutional adjustment, could hypothetically be able to govern until 2034. The 99% consensus at this months election has further confirmed that the president is highly appreciated and that many people want him to stay in power as long as possible.

If political choices always demand a compromise between freedom and stability, it is clear that Rwandans have learned for the second one. Nonetheless, Kagame’s unbreakable ruling raises questions about the democratic character of Rwanda’s political settlement.

For a country to be considered a democracy, its politics must be competitive, participatory, and fair. Some observers have noticed how Kagame consistently remains the certain victor because the relevant institutions are stacked in his favour. Furthermore, other candidates lack both sufficient exposure and funding for their political campaigns to compete with Kagame’s heroic image built over decades of political action. Barely a generation after the Tutsis genocide, political opposition in Rwanda still breaks down along ethnic lines. The mythology around Kagame also stays in peoples resilient gratefulness for the defeat of the Hutu government responsible for the killing of thousands of Tutsis.

Nonetheless, whereas Kagame built his political character on decades of fighting for Rwanda’s political stability, it would be naïve not to recognize that his popularity is also due to several socio-economic improvements that the country experienced since Kagame came into power. He has introduced free basic education, brought high-speed internet to 95 percent of the population, slashed maternal and child mortality by more than 50 percent, boosted trade, reduced poverty and fought corruption — earning Rwanda the rank of third least corrupt African nation in the latest ranking by Transparency International.

But there are always two sides of the coin. First of all, the outstanding consensus is also connected to the fact that information in Rwanda is very much biased in favour of the governmental establishment. Local Media are rarely critical of Kagame and they usually tend to support him. Furthermore, Human Rights Watch has accused Kagame’s government of cracking down on dissent before the vote in August, documenting a series of arrests and detentions of individuals with suspected links to government opponents. Rwandan authorities have forcibly disappeared opposition leaders and activists by denying that they are keeping them in custody or refusing to disclose their whereabouts — there is still no news, for example, about activist Illuminée Iragena who went missing last year.  Therefore, while the country grows economically, each year that Kagame stays in power results in more Rwandan politicians and journalists that are killed, jailed or forced into exile.

Paul Kagame has been cast as both a hero and a villain by Rwandans and international observers. Nonetheless, Rwandan citizens have reconfirmed their choice in favour of a stable country which is increasingly giving up too many of its democratic indicators.

Benedetta Zocchi

MPhil candidate in International Relations at the University of Oxford
Benedetta Zocchi