Rwandans re-elected Paul Kagame, who has been president since 2000, to lead their country for another seven-year term. In many ways, this election is about Kagame and his ruling party, the Rwanda Patriotic Front. A fascinating and complicated personality, Kagame has been hailed both as a “visionary leader” and an “iron-fisted strong man,” though the latter perspective has only recently emerged in earnest. Laura Seay, a political scientist at Morehouse College, offers the view that, like most politicians, Paul Kagame is neither angel nor demon; just a skillfull political tactician trying to stay in power. I’d argue, though, that he is a little bit of both, and yesterday’s landslide election epitomizes the Rwandan president’s complexity.

 

Kagame, the angel: donor darling and African icon

Over the last decade, and in large part thanks to Kagame’s personal efforts, Rwanda has achieved significant political, economic and social development gains. In 2008, the Rwandan parliament became the first to be composed of a majority of women. Poverty and literacy rates, life expectancy and school enrollment have all improved over the last decade. Thanks to his international stature, Kagame has attracted foreign investment, which has helped Rwanda achieve sustained economic growth.

In 2009, Fast Company featured an article highlighting Rwanda’s – and more specifically, Kagame’s – unprecedented approach to development: “build a global network of powerful friends to lure private investment — and market the brand of Rwanda.” This model has proved successful for the country, which in addition to drawing significant levels of foreign investment, has also been receiving large volumes of official development aid and been a prime recipient of international NGO support. These tangible results and a visible commitment to improving his country are the foundation of Kagame’s status as an African icon in the eyes of Rwandans and the international community.

 

Kagame, the demon: authoritarian tendencies

For all the undeniable good he’s brought to his country, Kagame has nevertheless failed to foster an environment for a healthy democracy to take root. Between suspicious assassinations of political opponents, arrests of top military officials, and the silencing of private media, Kagame has effectively disabled any substantial political opposition. In April 2010, a Human Rights Watch representative was denied a visa to enter Rwanda, again raising concerns that the government is putting a lid on free speech in the country. Human Rights Watch offers a chronology of violations of the right to freedom of expression, association, and assembly in Rwanda which clearly shows that in spite of the advances on the development front, much remains to be done for civil rights in Rwanda.

Kagame has also taken a controversial stance on Chinese investments in Africa, arguing that these investments are more likely to help African countries reach self-sufficiency than foreign aid will. The debate is ongoing as to the long-term effects of an increased Chinese economic presence on the continent. What’s interesting to note about Kagame’s strong endorsement of Chinese investments, however, is the strong sub-text about breaking free from Western standards and the obligations that come with accepting foreign aid in terms of governance and democracy. 

The atmosphere of repression, the silencing of dissent and the general lack of viable political opponents has meant that yesterday’s election results were completely unsurprising; so much so that Kagame supporters were already planning to celebrate before the vote even took place. For local and international media, the story was hardly newsworthy: Kagame’s victory came as no surprise to analysts, observers and voters alike. 

 

For Rwandans, though, their country’s dramatic turnaround is something that is to be credited to Kagame. Under his leadership, Rwanda has achieved undeniable social and economic progress, and Kagame has presided over an era of desperately needed stability and security. According to preliminary results, nearly 93% of voters cast their ballot for him. This incredibly high number was reached not only through a combination of repression, clever public relations, control of the media, and silencing of opposition, but also because Kagame is seen has having delivered peace and development to his people. For a country that has suffered so much in recent history, it’s understandable that voters would want to ensure that the climate of stability endures.

According to Rwanda’s constitution, this is supposed to be Kagame’s last term as president. It will be interesting to see how he prepares his exit from executive leadership – if at all – in the coming years.

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