- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 27, 2003

KIGALI, Rwanda — President Paul Kagame has clinched a decisive victory at the polls this week, but his government’s tough electoral tactics may have complicated his relationship with the Western donors who have bankrolled his country’s recovery from the 1994 genocide.

For the moment, the victory leaves Mr. Kagame, 47, as the towering political figure in Rwanda for the next seven years. With the prospect of another term after this one, Mr. Kagame, who has been the country’s strongman since 1994, could wind up personifying Rwanda for a generation.

“This is a true victory, irreversible, and not a surprise,” said Mr. Kagame, his fist held high during a victory rally early Tuesday.

Monday marked the first multiparty election in Rwanda’s history, a milestone after the three months in 1994 when the majority Hutu ethnic group murdered 800,000 or more minority Tutsis and their sympathizers. As a guerrilla leader, Mr. Kagame fought his way across the country and ended the slaughter, then became the first Tutsi to hold the country’s highest office.

Mr. Kagame’s margin of victory — 95.1 percent to 3.6 percent for his nearest rival, Faustin Twagiramungu, a Hutu running as an independent — ends any claim that other parties can hold a candle to Mr. Kagame’s ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front, international election observers said.

Those observers — from the European Union, other Western governments and human rights organizations — compiled a long list of incidents they believed made the election a cakewalk for Mr. Kagame and a nightmare for Mr. Twagiramungu. However, they also said the voting took place without the widespread violence of other African elections.

Mr. Twagiramungu was vilified in government-run media and faced intense criticism from electoral authorities as he tried to raise the issue of Hutu-Tutsi relations. On the eve of the voting, police arrested 12 of his provincial organizers, saying they were preparing election day violence.

The main charge against Mr. Twagiramungu was that he was practicing “divisionism,” a breach of Rwandan law that means encouraging people to think of themselves in ethnic terms — as Hutus or Tutsis, and not Rwandans. The law rendered impossible his attempts to raise ethnic issues, of which Rwanda still has many.

“To call this an exercise in democracy is not an accurate description by the standards of anyplace in the world,” said Alison Des Forges, a senior Africa researcher for Human Rights Watch. “How can you talk of democracy when people are not free to express themselves?”

Mr. Twagiramungu, a postgenocide prime minister who spent eight years in Belgian exile, could do little but echo this criticism as he promised to challenge the government.

“I denounce and do not support the elections as they have been conducted,” he said. “If by chance I am not arrested, I will continue my fight.”

[The 70-strong EU observer mission praised Monday’s vote as “an important step” for Rwanda’s democratization, Agence France-Presse reported, but said “optimal conditions for free and fair elections were probably not entirely met.”

[“Some irregularities and instances of fraud were noted on voting day,” said Colette Flesch, head of the observer team and a former foreign minister of Luxembourg.

[She said observers were unwelcome “in many cases” when electoral officials were checking the numbers of ballots cast against the numbers on voter rolls — a key safeguard against vote rigging.]

Nine years ago, hundreds of thousands of Rwanda’s people were slain in one of the country’s periodic ethnic bloodlettings since a 1959 civil war ended the monarchy and split Belgium’s trusteeship of Rwanda-Urundi. Its infrastructure was in ruins and government shaken by Hutu rebels who had fled to eastern Congo.

[After an official census last year, the Kagame government put the death toll in the hundred days of the 1994 genocide at slightly more than 1 million Rwandans killed.]

Today, Rwanda is peaceful and its economy is growing steadily, the International Monetary Fund says.

“Our [election] victory should serve as a lesson to the outside world that Rwanda is on the right path,” Mr. Kagame told the postelection rally. “Our victory means that even our opponents should join us in building the country.”

Yet the reconstruction of Rwanda has been accomplished largely with Western funding, making foreign backing crucial for Mr. Kagame. The U.S. Embassy here says foreign aid makes up 75 percent of Rwanda’s national budget, not counting help provided at the provincial level.

The United States provides $32 million per year to Rwanda through various projects, making it one of the top five donors. The others are Britain, the Netherlands, Germany and Belgium, and their combined help has made Rwanda one of the top aid recipients in Africa.

At the same time, owing to guilt at having failed to intervene in 1994, Western donors have been reluctant to use this financial leverage to pressure Rwanda, diplomats in Kigali say.

In the case of the United States, Rwanda’s support appears to have won it some freedom of action, diplomats and human rights activists suggest. The Kagame government has cooperated fully in the war on terrorism and backed the U.S.-led coalition that toppled Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, they note. It also has cemented a treaty with the United States that forbids the extradition of Rwandan or American soldiers to the International Criminal Court by either country.

Last week, as reports of pre-election harassment rose, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher issued a statement about “recent reports of intimidation [and] harassment.” But Mr. Boucher also cautioned against “the use of ethnicity as a means of inciting political division,” repeating a charge the Rwandan government leveled repeatedly against Mr. Twagiramungu during the campaign.

Informed sources say the Aug. 20 statement was the product of an interagency tug of war in Washington. The State Department wanted a tough statement criticizing the campaign environment, but the National Security Council sought a position that lent more support to the government of Mr. Kagame, who recently had a cordial meeting with President Bush in the White House.

On Monday, however, State Department spokesman Philip Reeker stepped up the criticism and specifically cited the election-eve detention of Mr. Twagiramungu’s organizers and mentioned “coerced statements.”

Rwanda’s other major donors have hinted they are rethinking aid to Kigali, but, like the United States, they also are waiting to see whether the political environment in Rwanda becomes more relaxed after the election, Western diplomats said. Donors hope for the release of jailed opposition figures, more freedom for human rights groups and the licensing of private media, one diplomat said.

“The expectation is that there will be an opening of the political space,” a diplomat said.

The Dutch government reduced the money it gave to Kigali for conducting the elections because the Kagame government had not explained the disappearances of opposition figures. Likewise, the new British development minister, Valerie Amos, has said London is considering changing how it spends money in East Africa.

Besides the issue of democratization, Rwanda is likely to face continuing pressure over its role in neighboring Congo, say Western diplomats and U.N. officials.

Rwanda officially ended its five-year military presence in eastern Congo last September, when it withdrew 20,000 troops. Western observers say privately they believe Rwandan troops continue to aid armed Congolese groups, but they are unable to produce evidence.



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