Our Observer Gaja Pellegrini tells us why she believes the August presidential elections in Rwanda were undemocratic. She spoke to an American volunteer worker in Rwanda who told her about the climate of fear that gripped the country in the days leading up to the election. This account has not been edited by France 24.

The August 2010 elections, monitored by organizations such as Human Right Watch, have been discredited for lack of critical opposition voices: how democratic can the process be when the running candidates had all backed Kagame in the 2003 elections?

None of the veritable opposition parties were allowed to run in the elections of August 2010.  Several were still applying for party status. On July 14, the Vice President of the Green Party (a party which had been unable to register to take part in the elections) Mr. Andre Kagwa Rwisereka, was found nearly decapitated by machete, his body found in a river near the former capital of Rwanda, Butare or Huye, in the South of the country.  Government police agencies were quick to solve the case, stating it was Mr. Rwisereka's business partner to commit the crime. The focus both in terms of government policy and public perception seems to be: internal peace and security first, economy second and democracy last, often perceived more as a necessary condition to appease the donor countries' wishes for "free and fair" elections.

Rwanda is run by a one-party system the RPF (Rwandan Patriotic Front), which is mainly comprised of Tutsis and enjoys the support of both the US and UK governments. One government-run newspaper, for example, is filled with adverts from American companies recruiting in Rwanda. Let's not forget that Kagame and other military officials were trained by CIA in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. What seems to be happening in recent years is that President Kagame is growing leery, not so much of opposition outside his party, which seemed easy for him to block, but rather of opposition within his own party. At present, a number of Kagame's former allied generals have been put in jail or, as South-Africa exiled General Faustin Kayumba Nyamwasa, recently suffered an attempted murder. The journalist investigating the attempted murder, Mr. Jean Leonard Rugambage, who had allegedly found proof linking the crime to the RPF government, was subsequently shot dead in Kigali.

The recent elections were extremely costly, about Rwf 8.5 billion, an increase of Rwf 6.3 billion from the 2003 elections. To put things in perspective, it is significant to highlight that Rwanda's economic progress is strongly reliant on foreign aid, with 60% of the population still living below the poverty line and with a per capita GDP of 900 USD. This foreign aid has been tied to pledges on the part of the Rwandan government of not investing more than 4% of it on military expenditure, which has been blatantly ignored by Kagame. Yet, although the country's per capita income is still low, the level of cleanliness and order are quite noticeable: Kigali for example is an extremely clean city in comparison to other African cities and metropolis. This aspect, as the economic improvement of the country's general living conditions and the attention paid to ensuring safety and order, have won President Kagame many praises internationally .

Yet, as I listen to the words of Ms C., an American woman living in Rwanda doing volunteer work during the run-up to the elections of 9 August 2010 and the days right after it, what strikes me most is the relatively little attention that western media has devoted to covering the recent events in Rwanda. Even after several murders, the imprisonment of political opponents to Kagame's main ruling party, the RPF, and the shutting down of two independent and opposition newspapers in the country few media outlets in the Western world have devoted significant coverage of the Rwandan elections. Here is her account:

"The general feeling among Rwandan people is that there was no real option/choice"

"I was speaking to my family in the US to assure them of my safety when my flat mate entered our home looking shaken ... "Have you heard the news?" she asked. At 7pm on Wednesday, three grenades had exploded at the city bus station in the center of Kigali, severely injuring seven bystanders including two children, just three days after the re-election of President Kagame. This was only one of several intimidating events that took place around President Kagame's campaign.

Indeed, the general feeling among Rwandan people is that there was no real option/choice. Some Rwandan citizens even considered holding elections to be an inappropriate use of citizens' time and of precious governmental funds, stating that for the moment the priority for Rwanda is to embrace economic development and to ensure safety and rule of law, with memories of the Genocide of 1994 as a constant reminder of what is to be avoided at all costs from re-occurring.  

"Divisions along ethnic lines are very strong"

As a foreigner, it was not always easy to gage the political views of the different ethnicities. Rwanda is 85% Hutu but the RPF party is predominantly Tutsi. Furthermore, the Tutsis who were formerly exiled to Uganda, as Mr. Kagame himself, are particularly privileged in the present government. Although in the past the RPF had taken veritable strides to be fairly representative of all ethnic groups, now it appears as the balance of power among the 3 ethnicities could be on the wane.  Although the use of the terms ‘Hutu', ‘Tutsi' and ‘Twa' is banned, in favor of embracing a ‘Rwandan' identity, divisions along ethnic lines are very strong and reflected in all aspects of daily life.

Among Rwandan citizens there is a sense of fear and mistrust to speak your mind for fear of being reported to authorities. The daily newspaper that I had access to in Rwanda was ‘The New Times" printed in English. As a foreigner this publication appeared more as propaganda, than a source of veritable information. By and large, the general public cannot afford the newspaper, at the cost of 1500 Rwandan Francs or about 2.50 USD, and those who can, would rather read news offered in the local language Kinyarwanda, but again cost remains the major obstacle for the general population; news remains a luxury product.

Additionally, there is a distinct difference between views in the capital Kigali (predominantly inhabited by Tutsis) and the countryside. Rwanda today is about 85% Hutu, 14% Tutsi and 1% Twa. Yet the capital and the power are, as in colonial times, concentrated in the hands of the Tutsi ethnicity. Officially these ethnic divides have been eliminated and they are all ‘Rwandans', but in reality they are very much present and play an important role in the life style of the population.

"A man's face was cut with a knife for failing to cheer when Kagame campaigners passed"

The consolidation of political power in Kagame's hands is blatant and his support from the US is also apparent (i.e., his son has been recently sent for training at West Point). During the election campaign, the militia traveled around the countryside forcefully rounding-up villagers to attend the election rallies. It was reported that a man's face was cut with a knife for failing to cheer when campaigners for President Kagame passed.

I went to Rwanda to participate in several volunteer projects and to do research work not affiliated with the election. It was my first time in Rwanda and in East Africa, though not my first visit to Africa. I worked with the child orphans of the genocide and my thoughts, having participated in the trauma-rehabilitation programmes, are that there is certainly a lot of positive value in helping to heal the pain and anguish of unspeakable traumas, but these rehabilitation programmes should be administered together with the Rwandan people, and not left solely in the hands of foreign individuals and organisations. Rehabilitation and the hope for the future can only be effective when basic needs are met and there is still a lot of work do be done in that respect. A truly democratic election did not take place, as many organizations highlighted, but the most important question to answer is: are we turning our heads away again?"