RWANDA’S President Paul Kagame won a third term in office with a landslide in the country’s Friday election.
Kagame, much like he did with his previous 90%+ victory margins, clinched an eye-popping 98.63% of the vote.
There were hardly any crumbs left for his two rivals – Frank Habineza of the Democratic Green Party, and Philippe Mpayimana, an independent – to scrap over.
Last year the Rwanda constitution was amended to shift term limits, allowing Kagame who has been president for 17 years, to run for another seven-year stint. He is also eligible to run for two more reduced five-year terms after 2024, should he choose to.
No African leader of recent decades divides opinion on the continent and internationally as Kagame.
Not surprisingly, the result has drawn criticism and social media derision. To those who loath Kagame, he is a lethal strongman who rules by fear, harms opponents, and has in the past dispatched his military to brutalise and plunder hapless neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
To his supporters, he is the Great Saviour. He is the brave and visionary leader who took a rebel army that was in disarray, built it into a disciplined fighting machine, and then ended the 1994 genocide in which nearly one million people were slaughtered.
Then he went ahead to pluck his country from the jaws of death, and in under 20 years, in a near-miraculous achievement turned it into one of Africa’s best performing economies, with the best global record in political representation for women, and some of the most dramatic declines in child mortality ever recorded in human history.
It is one of Africa’s least corrupt nations, and its government has been ranked among the world’s most effective. To many Rwandans, the world and its criticism can go to hell. He’s The Man.
It’s not that Kagame’s critics are too blinded by hatred of him to see his great works, or his supporters are frightened, delusional and too eager for the big African success story to see his faults.
The two extremes are different responses to the same reality. Rwanda is a country about which many find it difficult to be dispassionate.
But if one stepped back, and for starters asked what the latest election tells us about Rwanda, rather than what it reveals about Kagame, things become more interesting, and a little less polarising.
KAGAME’S REAL OPPONENTS
In this election Kagame was really not running against Frank Habineza or Philippe Mpayimana. His real competition was three “invisible” candidates – Rwandan history, Rwandan geography, and the Rwandan land.
Anyone who thoughtfully followed the social media posts by Rwandans on August 4, would have noticed that there were an inordinate number of photos of young voters who were gaga that they finally had become of voting age, and had cast for their hero Kagame.
It’s not too hard to read the meaning of it. This Rwanda election was the first one where the country’s “post-genocide” children became of voting age in the largest numbers.
Even if Rwanda were a Kenyan or Nigerian-style democracy madhouse, the experience of most post-conflict societies tells us that Kagame would still have seen a vote bumper, from these first-time voters.
But there’s another side to that. There are millions of Rwandans who are alive today or were born because the ruling Rwanda Patriotic Front won the war in 1994. However this poses a big future risk to Kagame too. This election actually signaled that.
When he formally became president in 2000, the population of Rwanda was 8 million. Today it is just over 12 million. By the time he finishes his new term, a high case scenario projects there will be 14 million Rwandans. That is double the number before the genocide!
It’s a frightening scenario, because Rwanda is a natural resource-poor country with little land. At 26,798 square kilometres, it is the fourth smallest on mainland Africa. There are five counties in Kenya that are bigger than it. Rwanda’s landscapes may be beautiful, but for photography. They are hilly and torturous for the farmers who have to make a living on them.
The question of space for people to live out full lives has been an existential issue in Rwanda for decades, and nearly all previous leaders have primarily had to respond to it. For Kagame, it is a more acute problem and challenge than it has even been for anyone before – precisely because of the very successes he is credited with, because they have led to population growth and sharply increased consumption, putting greater strains on the land.
A TRIP TO THE PAST
Therefore one needs to go many decades back, to return more meaningfully to the present. To borrow a phrase from statisticians, if we torture history hard enough, it will eventually confess some insights into Rwanda today.
Without peering closely at Rwanda’s land, you can’t fully understand its history. And to project its future, and how it impinges on its politics, you need to appreciate its geography.
In October 1990, the Rwanda Patriotic Front/Army insurgents, many of whom were refugees in Uganda and joined Yoweri Museveni’s National Resistance Army rebellion in Uganda that took power in 1986, defected en mass and launched a military campaign to return to their homeland.
Within days, riven by internal disagreements, and led by a view of Rwanda that had been coloured by their long stay in Uganda, they were beaten.
We dashed from Kampala to catch up with the fighting. We first went to the Kagitumba border point between Rwanda and Uganda, one of the first places the RPA rebels had breached. It was largely over by that point.
There was a large presence of the Uganda army on its side of the border, but nothing to see on the Rwandan side. Further off, though, Rwandan army and militia could be seen chasing and shooting after a few RPA stragglers.
Rwanda was an extremely poor country then, but something that I did not dwell on in the reporting of the conflict struck me. You see, until recently, most African border towns were run down.
The Ugandan side at Kagitumba, and other places like Katuna, was ramshackle. The Rwanda side was small but neatly built up, and the roads were better.
This detail was only to become relevant three years later.
The leader of the RPA, who was killed fairly early in the fight, was a charismatic, handsome Major General in the Uganda army, Fred Rwigyema.
Weeks after his death Kagame, who was a senior officer in the Ugandan military intelligence and was on a course in the US, returned to take over the rebel reins.
He chose what to some might have looked like a crazy decision. Rather than rebuild the RPA near the Ugandan border, where it would have been sure of an ally in its rear and safe supply routes, he took the rebels further inside to the inhospitable Muhabura Mountains. To compound matters, Muhabura was close to the strongholds of the Kigali regime led by Juvenal Habyarimana.
Kagame is not an eloquent philosopher-general like Uganda’s Museveni, but he is acutely intuitive.
In the end, mastering how to get to and from the mountains into Uganda, as soon became common, required the rebels to unlearn one of the things that had led to their defeat at the start. The wars in Uganda, starting with the 1978/79 campaign led by the Tanzanian-army and Ugandan exile groups that ousted military dictator Idi Amin, and all subsequent conflicts, were fought along the country’s “cattle corridor”.
Beginning from eastern Tanzania, the wider East Africa cattle corridor snakes through western, southern and eastern Uganda, to the north toward South Sudan, Ethiopia, and Somalia, branching off into Kenya’s northern Rift right through to Taveta toward the coast.
Armies are drawn to it by the availability of protein, but also because it’s mostly plain land allowing for quick and inexpensive military and guerrilla operations.
The Rwandese in the NRA knew how to fight in the plains, and became undone by Rwanda’s hills. In Muhabura, they finally mastered the hills. So in Rwanda, if you don’t listen to the land, you lose.
By 1993 the RPA had rediscovered its mettle, and come down the mountains. It swept most of northeastern Rwanda, and the momentum was on its side.
In the middle of 1993, I made another of several trips to the “liberated zones”. In the evening, I was scheduled to interview Kagame at his base.
So during the early part of the day, in the company of Frank Mugambagye (later Major), who is now Rwanda’s High Commissioner to Uganda, we went to places where there had been or were about to be attacked by RPA rebels.
There was a particular place where the RPA had scored a famous victory, and Mugambagye said there was something I had to see.
He showed me the fox holes that the Habyarimana forces had dug. They were orderly and neat. And one in particular, had a makeshift shelf where cigarettes, canned rations, and drinks were neatly arranged. Fearing the items were poisoned or there was a booty trap, the rebels had moved on without “charging” the supplies.
It was baffling that a soldier would arrange his foxhole at the frontline like it was his kitchen at home. Mugambagye told me it was symptomatic of the privilege in which regime troops lived relative to the rest of the country, and how out of touch they were.
But if you think of it, what that soldier did was reminiscent of what we saw last week in Rwanda, where some local groups elaborately decorated polling stations, and even hang Christmas lights on them. Who decorates a polling station?
Yet there are explanations. Beginning with the border post at Kagitumba in 1990; the soldiers decorating their foxholes and arranging their rations on a makeshift shelf; to the “order” that marks Rwandan life today, it has always been a country that was structured to wring the most out of little, and therefore to put the best face on what some other African counties that are endowed with vast and bountiful lands might consider small mercies.
The Rwandan genocide and the factors like the infamous identity cards that enabled it, the shape of its politics and elections, and how Kagame’s next seven years could pan out, all boil down to that.
-To be continued in Part 2.