In Rwanda vote, peo­ple knew the win­ner a long time ago

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

In the eyes of some vot­ers Philippe Mpay­i­mana, a fresh-faced for­mer jour­nal­ist who is run­ning for pres­i­dent of Rwanda, is just a clown. Other­wise, they ask, why would he be run­ning against long­time Pres­i­dent Paul Kagame? Some of Mpay­i­mana’s cam­paign venues are nearly empty of peo­ple, un­der­scor­ing a wide­spread be­lief among Rwan­dans that Friday’s elec­tion is just an­other corona­tion for Kagame, who won 93 per­cent of the votes in the last elec­tion. In the tidy cap­i­tal, Ki­gali, there is lit­tle hint of the com­ing vote.

Pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates are barred from putting cam­paign posters in most pub­lic places, in­clud­ing schools and hos­pi­tals. The elec­toral com­mis­sion vets can­di­dates’ cam­paign mes­sages, warn­ing that their so­cial me­dia ac­counts could be blocked other­wise. “Some peo­ple here even don’t know names of can­di­dates run­ning against Kagame,” said Chris Mun­yaneza, a univer­sity lec­turer who lives in Ki­gali. “Peo­ple are not both­ered.” “There is no ex­cite­ment be­cause peo­ple knew the win­ner a long time ago,” said an­other Ki­gali res­i­dent who in­sisted on anonymity for his safety.

Kagame has been de facto leader or pres­i­dent of the East African na­tion of 12 mil­lion peo­ple since his rebels ended its 1994 geno­cide. While he re­mains pop­u­lar for pre­sid­ing over im­pres­sive eco­nomic growth, he in­spires fear among some Rwan­dans who say he uses the pow­ers of the state to re­move per­ceived op­po­nents. Three po­ten­tial can­di­dates for Friday’s elec­tion were dis­qual­i­fied by the elec­toral com­mis­sion for al­legedly fail­ing to ful­fil cer­tain re­quire­ments, in­clud­ing col­lect­ing enough sig­na­tures.

Two oth­ers - Mpay­i­mana and Frank Habineza of the Demo­cratic Green Party of Rwanda - were cleared to run. The 59-yearold Kagame has al­ready claimed vic­tory, telling a rally in July that the win­ner of the elec­tion is al­ready known: “The day of the pres­i­den­tial elec­tions will just be a for­mal­ity.” He pointed to a con­sti­tu­tional amend­ment af­ter a ref­er­en­dum in 2015 that al­lows him to stay in power un­til 2034. Ahead of the polls, ten­sion has been grow­ing fol­low­ing the mass re­tire­ment of over 800 army of­fi­cers rare be­fore an elec­tion - and the re­ported ar­rest of at least four se­nior of­fi­cers.

The ar­rests in­clude a man re­lated to the late Col. Pa­trick Karegeya, a for­mer in­tel­li­gence chief who be­came a prom­i­nent dis­si­dent but was found dead in Jan­uary 2014, ap­par­ently stran­gled, in South Africa. Karegeya’s widow, who now lives in the United States, said of Kagame: “I think he is a man with an end­less ha­tred, even to those he has put in the grave like my hus­band.” Leah Karegeya said six fam­ily mem­bers, in­clud­ing her sis­ter Goretti Kab­uto, are in de­ten­tion in Rwanda be­cause of their ties to her late hus­band.

Cli­mate of fear

Two decades of of­ten deadly at­tacks on po­lit­i­cal op­po­nents, jour­nal­ists and rights ac­tivists have cre­ated a “cli­mate of fear” ahead of Rwanda’s elec­tion, Amnesty In­ter­na­tional said in a re­port last month. “There are many un­known pris­ons in this coun­try, and many peo­ple have van­ished and died there,” said one sup­porter of op­po­si­tion can­di­date Habineza, Char­lotte Umutesi. “My brother dis­ap­peared for a long time and we didn’t find him un­til much later. We need a change be­fore it is too late.” Rwan­dan au­thor­i­ties, in­clud­ing Kagame, deny crit­ics’ claims that the gov­ern­ment tar­gets dis­si­dents for as­sas­si­na­tion or dis­ap­pear­ances.

Oth­ers in­sist the pres­i­dent has wide­spread sup­port. Eric Ndusha­bandi, a pro­fes­sor of po­lit­i­cal sci­ence at the Na­tional Univer­sity of Rwanda, said many ad­mire Kagame as a “vi­sion­ary” leader who united a coun­try scarred by the 1994 geno­cide, in which over 800,000 Tut­sis and mod­er­ate Hu­tus were mas­sa­cred by Hutu ex­trem­ists. “Peo­ple are in­flu­enced by the trau­matic sit­u­a­tion of the geno­cide and con­flict­ual pol­i­tics in the past and no one is ready to go back,” Ndusha­bandi said.

Mean­while op­po­si­tion ral­lies of­ten flop, ap­par­ently be­cause some peo­ple are afraid to be seen as­so­ci­at­ing with the pres­i­dent’s op­po­nents. In the south­east­ern town of Nya­mata, where in­de­pen­dent can­di­date Mpay­i­mana held his first cam­paign rally, only about 15 peo­ple - most of them chil­dren at­tended. Po­lice last week ar­rested the mayor of the western dis­trict of Rubavu, Jeremie Si­na­menye, over al­le­ga­tions that he and some of his staff pre­vented vot­ers from at­tend­ing Mpay­i­mana’s ral­lies. —AP

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