Today, millions of Rwandans are casting their votes even though they know in advance the election’s outcome: President Paul Kagame will win by a landslide, extending his rule to at least 2024, for a total of thirty years in power. President Kagame even declared he would win weeks before the vote.
Friday’s result is certain because President Kagame has ensured he has no real opponents. A new challenger, Diane Rwigara, was targeted by misogynist smears that included nude pictures, allegedly of her, widely circulated on Rwandan social media. When she still insisted on running, election authorities barred her. An opposition politician who criticized Kagame’s agricultural policies was recently found with his throat slit and eyes mutilated. It echoed the near-beheading of an opposition politician prior to Rwanda’s last election, in 2010, which Kagame won with 93 percent of the vote. Kagame’s most prominent challenger in that election, Victoire Ingabire, also faced slurs about her alleged extramarital affairs and still languishes in prison for a campaign speech seen as critical of him. Rwanda’s Supreme Court convicted Ms. Ingabire of “inciting people to revolt.”
With each election, Kagame has tightened his grip on power, and the elections have increasingly turned into a performance of Kagame’s authority. He has conducted campaign rallies across Rwanda at which he promises democracy, peace, and economic development, and says he wants to respect “the will of the people.” Thousands of Rwandans turn up. During Rwanda’s 2010 election campaigns, Rwandans even sang church hymns replacing “Jesus” with “Kagame.” That year, Kagame’s party paid for the much smaller rallies of his poorer, handpicked rivals. And on Election Day, 97 percent of eligible voters turned out. No public dissent was reported. As in that election, the candidates allowed to run against Kagame today insist that they might win.
Kagame’s crackdown on the press means few media reports dare to contradict his government’s statements. He undermines Rwanda’s parliament and judiciary, and plays kingmaker in the economy, granting his associates lucrative businesses while seizing others with impunity. Government orders are carried out with efficiency and near-complete participation from Rwandans, impressing Kagame’s financiers, including the World Bank.
Kagame achieves such close control over daily life in Rwanda through a network of surveillance. All of Rwanda is divided into small “villages,” each of about a hundred and fifty families. Each village has a chief and an informer. Orders pass seamlessly between the government and the villages. A Rwandan journalist colleague of mine who was pursued by the government after criticizing Kagame found evading this surveillance impossible. Every home or hotel, whether in a crowded city or in the countryside, reported his presence to officials.
Kagame’s control is visible even in seemingly benign events. When he announced a ban on plastic bags, local officials eradicated plastic bags from Rwanda almost at once. When he decreed that all Rwandans should use footwear, Rwandans purchased shoes. Some Rwandans carry their shoes on their heads, so as not to wear them out, and walk in them only when officials are present. On the campaign trail, when Kagame demands support, local officials go door to door in villages to ensure he gets it—producing Kagame’s well-attended rallies and his near-perfect election turnouts and victories. A few words from Kagame, his high-pitched voice blaring from tinny radios throughout Rwanda, have the power to transform the country.
The network of villages is built on an authoritarian system that is more than a hundred years old. It was also used to carry out Rwanda’s 1994 genocide, in which nearly a million Rwandans, mostly Tutsi, were killed in about a hundred days—an efficiency that exceeded Nazi Germany’s. When the then Hutu-led government signaled for the extermination to start, the genocide began almost simultaneously across the country. Local officials in each village sent killing squads out to “work.” Radio stations broadcast the locations of people hiding. Kagame’s rebel force took control of Rwanda at the end of that genocide. But instead of dismantling this powerful system of control, he has reinforced it, and uses it to govern the country.
This system has sometimes gone awry, in one case leaving thousands of Rwandans homeless. In 2011, I traveled to remote villages where I found hundreds of people living in the open. Their huts were roofless. I asked a family if the army or police had destroyed their homes, and their reply surprised me: the villagers had done it themselves. Kagame had declared thatch-roof huts primitive, so local officials had ordered villagers to tear down their roofs. But the homeless villagers did not criticize Kagame—instead, they praised his housing policies. It was eerie to hear.
Kagame’s repressive control has also reportedly produced high vaccination and school enrollment rates. When government officials instruct women to give birth in hospitals instead of at home, Rwandans comply to an extent that far exceeds those of other developing nations. The alternative is dangerous. Disobedient Rwandans are branded “enemies of the state” and fined. Punishments include arbitrary detention and the denial of access to public services. Human Rights Watch this month reported that Rwanda’s government was executing petty thieves, part of a strategy “to spread fear, enforce order, and deter any resistance to government orders.” Rwandans’ near-total compliance is attractive to aid groups as diverse as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Partners in Health, and the Clinton Foundation, who praise Kagame’s efficiency and collaborate closely with his ministries.
Kagame has silenced Rwandans, so crises like homelessness and famine go unreported. Since he took power in 1994, more than sixty Rwandan journalists have disappeared or been imprisoned, killed, or forced to flee the country. Just before the 2010 elections, the editor Jean-Leonard Rugambage was shot dead on the same day he criticized Kagame. A journalist exiled in Uganda, Charles Ingabire, was shot dead after alleging corruption in Kagame’s family. In 2015, the head of Rwanda’s media reform body, Fred Muvunyi, was himself forced to flee. He received threats after he criticized the government’s ban on the BBC. Rwanda’s media now routinely praises Kagame and focuses on good news, such as fashion pageants, visits from foreign dignitaries, and arrests of criminals.
A famine might be underway in Rwanda, but we would not know. Famine warnings have sounded across East Africa this past year, linked to El Niño. Rwandan media a year ago reported that famine was “ravaging” parts of the country, affecting at least 100,000 families. But since then, the Rwandan press has mostly been silent. It is reminiscent of a famine declared ten years ago in Burundi, along its border with Rwanda. The two countries share a climactic zone there, but on the Rwandan side of the border, to this day, there was officially no famine.
The government’s position, meanwhile, is reported as the truth. Researchers wishing to publish data contradicting government figures must first obtain the government’s approval. Several researchers associated with The Review of African Political Economy, some working anonymously, recently found that poverty has “increased significantly” in Rwanda. This contradicts the government’s much-vaunted claims of decreasing poverty, repeated by most media outlets, and even by the president of the World Bank. The new findings corroborate previous studies showing poverty rising by 6 percent, as well as the withdrawal from a poverty study of a respected research firm that disagreed with the government’s measurements. World Bank researchers have in the past been forced to destroy their data after it became clear that they were willing to contradict the government. Rwandan citizens who had collaborated with those researchers were interrogated by police.
Boiling under society’s surface is Kagame’s repression regarding the genocide. In the official narrative, he is the hero who stopped it. But it is taboo in Rwanda to mention that in the middle of the genocide, Kagame’s rebel force opposed the deployment of UN peacekeepers, asserting that “the genocide is almost completed” and that there were hardly any people left to save. In fact, thousands of lives could have been saved, but Kagame worried that the peacekeepers would interfere with his military campaign to take power.
Each year, Kagame presides over a vigil at Kigali’s national stadium to commemorate the start of the genocide. Survivors read out testimonies; a live performance reenacts the killing; videos of killing are sometimes screened. Thousands of survivors in the stadium begin to howl and faint. Kagame then reminds these survivors that he was their savior.
There are credible reports of mass killings by Kagame’s forces during and after Rwanda’s genocide, with tens or hundreds of thousands of mostly Hutu victims. Ms. Ingabire, in the election campaign speech that got her arrested, reflected the anguish of many Rwandans that almost none of those mass killings has been accounted for, presumably because Kagame and his close associates are culpable.
That millions of Rwandans are casting futile ballots at the polls today perhaps indicates the power of Kagame’s repression. Kagame will tell us that it shows us the depth of Rwanda’s democracy, and of the popular support for his rule. The threat to Rwanda, as in many dictatorships, may lie in the degree to which Kagame believes his own words.
Anjan Sundaram is the author of Bad News: Last Journalists in a Dictatorship and Stringer: A Reporter’s Journey in the Congo. His writing has appeared in Granta, The New York Times, The Guardian, The Washington Post, and Foreign Policy.