Friday, August 20, 2010

Rwanda’s Extraordinarily Popular Leader

Last year, I questioned whether Equatorial Guinea’s presidential election results could be justified. Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo was reelected in November 2009 with 90% of the vote. It is beyond the ability of the international community to accept that such universal popularity was possible through legal, fair means. As I said then, even winning margins in the 70s seem suspicious to us in a competitive race anywhere. Now another African leader has won reelection with the support of more than nine out of every ten voters.

Rwandan President Paul Kagame of the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front received 93% of the vote last week in his bid for a second term. The three leading contenders – Jean Damascene Ntawuhkulirayo (Social Democratic Party), Prosper Higiro (Liberal Party) and Alvera Mukabatramba (Party for Peace and Concord) – all conceded defeat. However, none of them were considered Kagame’s most competitive rival.

That would have been Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza of the Unified Democratic Forces (UDF) a coalition of Rwandan opposition parties with a large base of active members in Rwanda, Europe, the United States and Canada. Unfortunately, she was unable to run for president as her coalition wanted because she was placed under house arrest earlier in the year on charges of funding rebels in the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo and espousing a genocidal philosophy.

Despite giving a speech upon her return to Rwanda in January criticizing the largely-Tutsi directed genocide and condemning war crimes, she was accused of minimizing it instead. Ingabire questioned the ethnic makeup of the government, which is considered dangerous in a nation in which hundreds of thousands were killed in genocide in 1994.

If Ingabire’s detention were the only action limiting the opposition’s chances in the election, that might be explainable under the circumstances. But it wasn’t. André Kagwa Rwisereka, vice-president of the Democratic Green Party was murdered. Jean Leonard Rugambage, deputy editor of the newspaper Umuvugizi, was shot dead. Bernard Ntaganda, a potential presidential candidate was arrested and held in detention. Theogene Muhayeyezu, Ingabire’s attorney, was arrested and held in detention. Hundreds of other opposition party members were arrested and detained weeks before the election. Given that the campaign period was only 20 days, these killings and arrests prevented much of the opposition from effectively organizing and contesting the election.

The Economist magazine recently accused Kagame of allowing “less political space and press freedom at home than Robert Mugabe does in Zimbabwe.” That view is confirmed by various human rights reports. According to the U.S. Department of State’s current human rights report on Rwanda, “Citizens' right to change their government was effectively restricted. Violence against genocide survivors and witnesses by unknown assailants resulted in deaths. There were reports of abuse of suspects by security forces and local defense members, and prison and detention center conditions remained generally harsh. Security forces arbitrarily arrested and detained persons. Prolonged pretrial detention was a problem.”

Human Rights Watch noted that over the six months leading up to the August elections, they found “a worrying pattern of intimidation, harassment and other abuses - ranging from killings and arrests to restrictive administrative measures - against opposition parties, journalists, members of civil society and other critics.”

American attorney Peter Erlinder was held in jail in Rwanda for three weeks in connection with his defense of an opposition politician. He has accused Rwanda of being a “police state” supported by the United States, which has provided Rwanda with approximately US$1 billion in aid over the past decade.

Indeed, Kagame was once considered one of Africa’s up-and-coming young leaders, and he has been supported by the U.S. and other Western nations for leading the fight against genocide in 1994. His increasingly authoritarian rule has been tolerated because he has been considered a strategic ally. However, the strains on the relationship seem to be fraying it. The National Security Council (NSC), in a somewhat unusual step, expressed concern over “a series of disturbing events prior to the election, including the suspension of two newspapers, the expulsion of a human rights researcher, the barring of two opposition parties from taking part in the election, and the arrest of journalists.”

In Equatorial Guinea, Botswana and some other African countries, the ruling party wins largely because of the weakness of the opposition, albeit with some help from ruling party fiddling. In the case of Rwanda, the fiddling seems to be a greater reason for the Kagame landslide.

So what is to be done in this situation? To be fair, even critics acknowledge the progress made in Rwanda since the 1994 genocide. Transparency International has ranked Rwanda as the least corrupt country in East Africa. The World Bank describes Rwanda as a one of Africa’s top economic reformers. Rwanda has already achieved some of the United Nations Millennium Development goals for 2015.

Rwanda poses one of those foreign policy conundrums governments constantly face. An ally has some obvious problems, but has much to commend it. The country’s strategic value remains the same this week as it did before the election. Quiet diplomacy would seem to be the answer, but that has often been lost on a government that continues to use the genocide card to explain away opposition and its overreactions. The NSC statement may be the first in a louder display of diplomacy aimed at preventing a valued ally from going completely off the rails. Let’s hope it is not too late already.

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