Paul Kagame has held an iron-clad grip on power in Rwanda since taking office 17 years ago and that is set to remain after Friday’s presidential elections, with his victory an almost foregone conclusion.
The 59-year-old led a rebel army that ended the country’s 1994 genocide in which about 800,000 people died. He has been credited with turning Rwanda’s economy into one of the continent’s top performers by cutting red tape and improving internet access, roads and electricity supply.
Yet his detractors, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, say civil liberties have fallen by the wayside and the credibility of the vote has been compromised by a violent crackdown on his opponents. They are criticisms the authorities reject.
Kagame won 93% of the previous presidential vote, in 2010, and reaffirmed his political dominance in 2015, when more than 98% of the 6.28-million people who cast ballots in a referendum voted in favour of a constitutional change that will enable him to stand for a third seven-year term.
Due to the amendment, he can run for two more terms of five years each, potentially retaining his post until 2034.
"Kagame will remain central in policy making in Rwanda for the foreseeable future, bar any personal health issues or other unexpected events," said Mark Bohlund, Africa economist with Bloomberg Intelligence in London. "Investors are likely to view the high probability of policy continuity and Kagame’s developmental agenda as more important than grievances of transgressions of freedom of speech and other human rights," Bohlund said.
The nation’s economy, which gets donations from countries including the US and UK, has expanded an average of more than 7% a year since Kagame took office in 2000 and is expected to grow 6.1% in 2017, according to the IMF. Its biggest industries and sources of foreign exchange are tea, coffee, tourism and mining. About a third of the population of 12-million are subsistence farmers.
In its election manifesto, the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front pledged to create jobs, partner with private companies to encourage new industry, build about 3,800km of roads and increase mineral exploration.
Kagame will face two challengers: Frank Habineza, leader of the Democratic Green Party of Rwanda, who was not allowed to run in 2010 and fled into exile after his deputy was killed; and Mpayimana Philippe, an independent. Three hopefuls were barred after the National Electoral Commission ruled they had not complied with a requirement to collect 600 supporters’ signatures.
Amnesty urged the government in July to prevent harassment of opposition candidates and their supporters and start reforms to open up the political space before the 2024 elections to allow genuine debate.
About 6.8-million people have registered to cast ballots. The electoral commission expects to announce the winner on Friday evening.