On August 5, 2017, the people of Rwanda awoke to hear the much anticipated news that President Paul Kagame, the only head of state Rwandans have known this century, won his reelection bid to serve his third consecutive term. Early polls reported by the Associated Press suggested that President Kagame obtained nearly 99 percent of the votes; electoral officials counting overnight estimated that main contender Frank Habineza would barely receive one percent of votes. The landslide election was even more crushing than polls had estimated. In 2010, President Kagame sealed his election with 93 percent of the vote; this time around, Rwandans showed even more fervor and support for the incumbent candidate. President Kagame’s key role in bringing peace to Rwanda after the terrible conflict left more than 500,000 ethnic Tutsis dead and countless more missing in the 1990s, continues to reward him with valuable political dividends, but he has also been targeted by staunch opposition and controversy.
International observers were pleased by the way the elections unfolded on Friday; however, investigators have voiced concerns about reports of civil rights abuses and political strong-arm tactics used by the government against the opposition. Journalists have complained about the lack of access they expect to receive in a democratic African nation, and there have also been mysterious deaths of dissidents who left Rwanda after feeling intimidated by government military forces. One of the most pressing concerns voiced by the international community is that President Kagame has previously succeeded in pushing a constitutional amendment that ostensibly allows him to retain the presidency of Rwanda until the year 2034. Although Kagame has not made an explicit move to exercise that right, which was enacted in 2015, he could legally do so if he ever feels that his mandate is challenged.
Rwanda is a nation of 12 million optimistic citizens who have witnessed tremendous economic growth and development since the turn of the century, and many voters feel that President Kagame has been an instrumental part of this African miracle. The 59-year old leader is a populist who believes that schools, hospitals, and community meal programs are excellent means of serving his people as well as maintaining popularity and securing votes. Opponent Frank Habineza has been running against Kagame for a decade; he is getting worried that his Democratic Green Party may soon be considered a fake political faction. Habineza has even gone into exile in the past after some of his colleagues disappeared and were later found dead.
Even with all the worrisome stories about Kagame’s involvement in suppressing his opponents with violence, voters seem to be more interested in Rwanda’s amazing GDP growth during this century, and they are also pleased with the numerous infrastructure projects around the country. Until President Kagame exceeds his term limits in a blatantly undemocratic fashion, he will likely remain in power.