KIBUNGO, Rwanda — Some residents of this southeastern town recently met up secretly at a makeshift bus stop to discuss the fate of young opposition leader Eugene Ndereyimana.
“Where is he now? Is he alive, or was he killed by police?” asked one of the town elders, who asked that his name be withheld to protect his safety. “What kind of country is this where one cannot speak freely?
“He is not the first one to go missing,” he added. “We are losing our people in mysterious ways.”
Mr. Ndereyimana, 29, disappeared two months ago on his way to a youth meeting organized by United Democratic Forces of Rwanda (FDU-Inkingi), a coalition of small opposition parties that banded together to oppose Rwandan President Paul Kagame and his long-ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF).
Mr. Ndereyimana was a vocal opponent of Mr. Kagame, who has been in power for nearly two decades. He was especially popular among the young.
Mr. Ndereyimana is the latest Rwandan opposition leader to disappear, be imprisoned or be killed. The country has been hailed abroad for its political and economic development since the genocide 25 years ago but has come under increasing criticism for human rights violations.
“On the international stage, Rwanda is a model of law and order, yet we are seeing a spate of violent and brazen attacks against opposition members go unpunished,” Lewis Mudge, Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. “Rwanda’s partners and donors should be raising questions about the fate of those who try to criticize the government or its policies. Otherwise, opponents or state critics will likely continue to end up dead or missing.”
Mr. Kagame officially came to power in 2000 after commanding a rebel force that ended the 1994 Rwandan genocide by the majority Hutus targeting the minority Tutsis, a massacre that resulted in more than 800,000 deaths. From 1994 to 2000, he was considered the de facto leader as vice president and defense minister.
Rwanda has since rebuilt itself under the RPF party and earned a reputation as one of the continent’s best-run countries. It has been hailed for its political stability and for tackling corruption while improving its education and technology sectors. Rwanda also has generated enviable economic growth rates for most of this century, reduced poverty, and increased literacy and life expectancy significantly, according to the World Bank. More women hold public office in Rwanda than anywhere else on the planet.
To achieve the stability needed for growth, Mr. Kagame’s administration exerted strict control over the political landscape, analysts say, but it started to go too far in the past few years. Political activists challenging Mr. Kagame’s authority have disappeared without a trace. Others have been violently attacked or jailed.
On Sept. 23, two men believed to be police officers stabbed to death Syridio Dusabumuremyi of the FDU-Inkingi party at his shop in the country’s southern Muhanga district.
In March, FDU-Inkingi spokesman Anselme Mutuyimana was kidnapped and his body dumped in a forest in the country’s west. Late last year, FDU-Inkingi First Vice President Boniface Twagirimana disappeared without a trace.
“We don’t know what’s happening in this country ,” said Victoire Ingabire, leader of FDU-Inkingi. “We want the government to tell the country who is killing members of the opposition and who is responsible for those disappearances. We have many cases of unsolved murders and disappearances, but the government doesn’t say anything.”
The Rwanda Investigation Office used to conduct inquiries into killings and disappearances of officials, but no reports were issued for the recent cases.
“We are aware and investigations are ongoing,” Modeste Mbabazi, a spokesman for the office, said after Dusabumuremyi was stabbed to death. “Two people have already been arrested in connection with the murder.”
Mr. Kagame denies having anything to do with the violence and disappearances.
Rwanda’s European critics “really need to stop this superiority complex nonsense about human rights,” he told France 24 television in a recent interview in Brussels. “You think you’re the only ones who respect human rights. No, we have fought for human rights and freedoms of our people much better and more than anyone — including you people who keep talking about this nonsense. Where we have taken a country and where it is now speaks for itself.”
The atmosphere on the street, meanwhile, has been tense. In the capital, Kigali, and other major cities across the country, most are afraid to speak openly about politics for fear of repercussions.
“I don’t want to speak to you. I can get killed,” said a mother of three who owns a grocery shop in Kigali. In her attempt to demonstrate that she wasn’t speaking against Mr. Kagame’s government, she said, “As a country, we are united under the good leadership of our beloved president, Kagame. He cares about us, and we love him very much.”
Others, still wary of giving their names, are more critical and openly solicit outside help.
“This is another genocide perpetuated by Kagame, and the world is unaware,” said the elder at the bus stop. “The international community should come to our rescue. We are helpless.”
Although the political stability under Mr. Kagame’s tough rule has helped spur economic development, analysts say, the lack of political freedoms and civil liberties will slow down long-term progress — especially the development of youths like Mr. Ndereyimana, who is widely seen as a prospective leader of the region or even the country.
Edward Kisiang’ani, a professor of political history at Kenyatta University in Nairobi, Kenya, said Mr. Kagame has taken advantage of Rwanda’s economic growth and his impressive development record to exert strict control over the political landscape and stamp out any challenge to his power.
“The international community see Kagame as a savior, and he is not accountable to anyone because he saved his people,” Mr. Kisiang’ani said. “Rwanda needs democracy to have sustainable development. The country cannot develop if there’s no space to criticize leaders because corruption and mismanagement of resources will become widespread.”