In a result that surprised absolutely nobody (except the Rwandan election board, who had been expecting the results somewhat earlier), Paul Kagame yesterday won a second 7-year term as president of Rwanda. The votes have yet to be counted, but initial estimates indicate upwards of 90% of the vote for Kagame and the RPF. A wildly popular figure with a firm grip on power, one would suspect.
Or maybe not. Events of the last few months have belied Kagame’s reputation as a modern, visionary leader, with his own plan for Rwanda’s development. Opposition figures and journalists shot, political parties denied entry into the election, media outlets shut. It sounds all too familiar. We’ve been down this road before – with Meles Zenawi, with Hamid Karzai, with Robert Mugabe.
Kagame, however, is not phased. Remember the genocide, he says; look what a free press did then, look what a free opposition stirred up then. This is his constant refrain. I have seen him speak twice, and read innumerable other interviews, and he always says the same thing, in different words: “Remember the genocide. Whatever I do, I’m not going to let it happen again. Unlike you, in the West, who let it happen the first time.”
It is an impregnable argument, (also, incidentally, employed by Israeli leaders) that lets Kagame avoid any serious questions about his leadership. But it’s time these questions are asked. As an extremely media- and technology-savvy individual, he will know exactly what the implications of the events of the past few months mean. If he didn’t, then Tony Blair’s governance advisory team, who have an office in the presidency, would have told him. This means one of two things. Either, he has lost control of the forces within his party, who are short-sightedly securing power for themselves within a Kagame government by securing Kagame, regardless of the consequences; or he faces genuine, substantive opposition from within the RPF. From a distance, it seems like the latter is most plausible – this article in the Independent provides the most interesting analysis of what might be going on. See also Rwanda – Democracy Watch.
Either way, I can’t help but think that whatever is going on, Kagame is still the right person to lead Rwanda out of the genocide and into modernity. Kigali under his stewardship has become one of the most promising cities in Africa – clean, prosperous and exceptionally safe. The economy is doing fantastic things, so much so that all the international institutions are more than happy to turn a blind eye to the less savoury elements of Kagame’s rule. Perhaps it is misty-eyed optimism, but Rwanda seems to be doing now what Singapore did 30 years ago. Sometimes, democracy is not the answer, and you need to be pushy to get things done. Is now, in Rwanda, one of those times? I can only hope so.