Saturday, August 23, 2003

Nine years after a genocide by Hutu extremists tore apart the ethnic fabric of Rwanda, President Paul Kagame and his political movement will ask voters tomorrow to proclaim that the Central African nation is united behind his leadership.

“The fundamental issue of this presidential election is the unity of our nation,” the Rwandan ambassador in Washington, Zac Nsenga, said in an interview.

Campaigning ended yesterday with charges that the Tutsi-dominated government led by the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) harassed the opposition and government countercharges that a Hutu candidate exploited ethnic frictions by telling his Hutu brethren to “remember who you are.”

Mr. Kagame wrapped up his campaign with two large rallies. His main rival, Faustin Twagiramungu, stayed home and rebutted charges that he raised tensions between the majority Hutus and the minority Tutsis.

Mr. Kagame’s campaign has dwarfed those of his opponents, and the rally yesterday at the capital Kigali’s Nyamirambo Stadium featured tumbling acrobats and his catchy campaign song.

“This occasion, choosing the next president of this country …” Mr. Kagame said, “this is a giant step that Rwanda has taken in building democracy.”

Only one other candidate, Alivera Mukabaramba, planned a rally, in the southern town of Gikongoro. A fourth candidate, Jean Nepomuscene Nayinzira, has shunned public rallies.

Mr. Kagame’s three challengers — the most prominent of whom is Mr. Twagiramungu, a former prime minister under the RPF — are all running either as independents or candidates of minor parties with little clout.

This overshadowed opposition has made incumbency a major factor in the election. Analysts also believe Mr. Kagame has demonstrated abundant skills, first as military strategist and then as popular president. Security has improved dramatically since 1994, the economy is performing well, education is on the rise and poverty levels are falling.

As a result, there appears little doubt Mr. Kagame will receive the mandate he seeks. Yet, news accounts from Kigali convey a sense of unease by the government over the campaign’s potential for divisiveness.

The accounts tell of police and security agencies harassing or threatening the opposition, even at the slightest suggestion that Rwanda, like virtually all other African states, is made up of ethnic groups whose interests may differ.

On Friday, London-based human rights group Amnesty International said the RPF “has used pressure tactics including the detention of opposition supporters, forced conscription into RPF party ranks and violent intimidation, including death threats, to undermine support for the opposition.”

Ambassador Nsenga “categorically” denied there have been harassment or threats.

“But we are hoping that the election, through public participation in the political process, will contribute to the stability of the nation and help us to resolve national issues by peaceful means,” he said.

The RPF was formed in neighboring Uganda by Tutsis who had fled into exile in 1959 after a Hutu revolution that ended their 400-year rule. In Uganda, they created a military wing that helped President Yoweri Museveni win his own battle against successive Ugandan dictatorships.

Then, in 1991, they crossed back into Rwanda to challenge Hutu rule anew. They came to power in 1994 after Hutu extremists launched a three-month genocide that took the lives of about 500,000 — some say a million — Tutsis and moderate Hutus.

Mr. Nsenga, like his predecessors in Washington, emphasized the Rwandan government’s view that the Tutsi-Hutu rivalry is not the prime issue.

“Rwanda is working toward reconciliation of ethnic problems, not their exacerbation,” he said.

The vote tomorrow for president is the first national test at the polls for Rwanda since independence from Belgium in 1962. Starting in 1999, it has moved up the ladder from local to regional elections. Late in September, it will hold elections for a national legislature.

The international community has shown strong support for Mr. Kagame’s rule and is unlikely to challenge the election results.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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