Rwanda: As candidates step up, could Paul Kagame possibly lose this year’s election?

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The notion that Paul Kagame could lose this year’s presidential election seems almost laughable. This is the man who won his last outing with 93% of the votes and last year saw his country vote 98% in favour of constitutional changes that allow him to run for a third term this year.

Rwanda’s recent history, since the horrors of its 1994 genocide, says Kagame’s opponents stand little chance of an upset in the August 4 polls. In 2010, 97.5% of the country turned out to vote and Kagame’s nearest rival at the time, Jean Damascene Ntawukuriryayo of the Social Democratic Party, won a mere 5.15% of the votes. In third place was Prosper Higiro of the Liberal Party with just 1.37% of the votes.

The election in 2010 was lauded as a peaceful, democratic process and six years later the country overwhelmingly voted in a national referendum to allow Paul Kagame to run for president again, despite already serving his constitutionally limited two terms.

With that kind of back story this year’s election who could possibly imagine they have a chance of beating Paul Kagame in August? According to Michael Ryan, head of the EU delegation to Rwanda, very little.

“I think you would not lose any money if you bet on Mr. Paul Kagame,” he told VOA.

 

Familiar rhetoric from party candidates

Last month, Frank Habineza was among the first candidates officially nominated to run against Kagame in the upcoming elections. Representing the Green Party – one of eleven political organisations in Rwanda – Habineza was approved by over 400 party delegates to make his case against the country’s acting president.

Habineza says his manifesto includes to improve various sectors, including agriculture, education and security.

“For security officers, we will increase their salaries because they do a very good job and their remuneration remains meagre compared to the current economy,” he told the press.

He also promised to improve the country’s defences against external threats.

“Although we recognise the government has done a lot, we don’t have enough army to be everywhere, we will build a strong wall in various Rwandan borders starting from the Volcanoes National Volcano Park to deal with insecurity between Rwanda and neighbouring DR Congo,” he said.

It sounds like the kind of rhetoric you would expect from a candidate in Habineza’s position, running for an election he’ll likely never win.

However, there are some less predictable candidates emerging – or potential candidates, at least – who have a much bigger challenge ahead of them.

 

Enter the independent candidates

On Wednesday, Diane Shima Rwigara declared her interest in running for president, which would make her the country’s first female independent candidate. The 35-year-old daughter of late tycoon Assinapol Rwigara comes with some manifesto promises worthy of capturing attention, too.

She promises to work on eradicating poverty from Rwanda, provide health insurance for everyone in the country and champion for free speech – the last of which makes her a real opponent of the current regime.

Ms Rwigara criticises the ruling RPF party and the notion of Kagame running for a third term as president, claiming RPF was behind the constitutional changes that allow it.

“When time comes for leaders to leave power, they get excuses to stay and then say that it is the people who are asking them to continue to lead,” she says. “This is a bad habit across the continent.”

She also calls out the government for failing the millions of people still facing poverty and injustice, despite Rwanda’s economic growth.

“RPF has failed to tackle poverty or to provide security and justice. What RPF has failed to do in the last 23 years, they cannot do it in the coming years. As a president, I will ensure that I deliver on all these.”

Ms Rwigara isn’t the only person stepping up to run against Kagame in August, either. She joins a growing list of independent candidates, including former journalist Phillipe Mpayimana and controversial priest Thomas Nahimana who have also expressed their interest.

However, they each face the same challenge in becoming eligible to run, before they even get the chance to take on undefeated heavyweight Paul Kagame. First. they need to gather 600 signatures from 30 districts, including a minimum of 12 from each district for the National Electorial Commission (NEC) to allow their candidacy.

The NEC has also warned aspiring candidates against fundraising to raise campaign money, effectively restricting candidacy to those who have done well for themselves under Kagame’s rule.

 

The challenge of differentiation in Rwanda

If there’s any chance at all that Rwanda will choose to elect a new leader in August, it will have to be someone that offers something new. After all, why vote for change when Kagame is clearly capable of steering Rwanda to further economic growth while maintaining security?

In this regard, his regime until now as been a resounding success but it’s the constant questions over free speech, injustice and human rights that tarnish his presidency.

This is precisely why the words of Diane Shima Rwigara are so refreshing ahead of the election run, but there’s a problem with this too. Differentiating yourself on the grounds of free speech in a country where Kagame continues to win elections and referendums by more than 90 percent potentially voids your position. When freedom of expression is stamped out, are people willing to vote for change even if they want it?

If Rwandans want change, they certainly haven’t voted for it since Kagame took the helm. Which suggests he either really is that popular among the people or there’s something more sinister influencing election results in Rwanda.

Either way, the chances of anything but a Paul Kagame victory being announced after votes are counted in August seems unthinkable.

 

Featured image: By © ITU/J.Ohle, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=31853376

 

About Aaron Brooks

Aaron Brooks is a UK journalist who wants to cut out the international agendas in news. Spending his early years in both England and Northern Ireland he saw the difference between reality and media coverage at an early age. After graduating from the University of Chester with a BA in journalism, his travels revealed just how large the gap between news and the real world can be. As Editor-in-Chief at East Africa Monitor, it’s his job to provide a balanced view of what’s going on in the region for English-speaking audiences.