Kagame accused of manipulating fear to win new term as Rwandan leader

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The Independent Online

Blood flowed like water down these muddy streets in these hilltop hamlets nine years ago. Today, Rwandans will walk along them to the polls to choose a president and, many hope, to put their genocidal history behind them.

For the first time since the 1994 slaughter of over 500,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus, Rwanda is holding a presidential election. The winner will almost certainly be Paul Kagame, the Tutsi rebel leader turned president credited with ending the hellish, 100-day slaughter and imposing order.

But if the poll is a victory for Mr Kagame, it will be no triumph for democracy.

Diplomats, human-rights workers and analysts say the election is a thinly disguised sham, heavily tilted in his favour. Only one image appears on the dusty streets of the capital, Kigali, that of Mr Kagame. The main Hutu opposition party, the MDR, has been banned; its senior officials have been harassed, locked up or have "disappeared".

"It is not an exercise in democracy by the standards of anywhere in the world," said Alison Des Forges of Human Rights Watch.

A campaign of vilification has been launched against Faustin Twagiramungu, the Hutu who is Mr Kagame's only serious opponent. The former prime minister, who once served under Mr Kagame, has been tarred as an ethnic "divisionist" and a "Nazi", and been reduced to a quasi-underground election campaign.

The charges suggest the government is manipulating fear to stay in power, said Ms Des Forges. "They realise that the genocide constitutes a political resource for use inside and outside the country".

The heavy-handed tactics puzzle many observers because Mr Kagame seemed destined to retain the presidency anyway. Since the 1994 carnage, the stern-faced, wiry president has steered Rwanda along the path of peaceful development. The war is over. The economy has grown steadily thanks largely to generous western aid donations, particularly from Britain. Clare Short, Britain's former development secretary, was one of Mr Kagame's most loyal allies, prompting criticism that she turned a blind eye to his failings, especially Rwandan abuses in neighbouring Congo.

In public Mr Kagame has strived for ethnic inclusivity, drawing Hutu ministers into his cabinet. He released over 23,000 Hutu prisoners from jail earlier this year, though they will face trial at the Gacaca courts, a form of village justice designed to ease the burden in overcrowded prisons, where another 75,000 are still awaiting trial.

His apparent paranoia about winning may come from Rwanda's ethnic arithmetic - Tutsis make up just 14 per cent of the population, Hutus 85 per cent. "They are afraid of what might happen in the privacy of the ballot box," said one local observer.

The steely order and discipline that mark Mr Kagame's rule were evident at his closing campaign rallies on Saturday. In a muddy field outside Kigali, thousands of supports filed through a security cordon worthy of an international airport. Inside, they politely waved plastic flags from behind a line of school desks as Mr Kagame addressed them from a central podium circled by bodyguards and soldiers.

"Don't fear that you will be harmed when you elect Kagame on Monday. We will protect you," he said.

A potent reminder of the cataclysmic past stands at Ntarama, an hour's drive from Kigali, where around 5,0000 people were murdered on 16 April, 1994. Birds chip in the eucalyptus trees over the deserted Catholic Church. The pall of death hangs within.

Piles of human bones and gray ashes litter the pews where thousands of cowering Tutsis were shot, blasted and hacked to death by four truckloads of Hutu killers.

Dansira Nyirabazungu was among the few survivors. After watching her husband and two daughters die, she played dead under a pile of corpses, fleeing at nightfall. Today she will be voting for Mr Kagame. "He is the one. He stopped the genocide," she said, sitting on a grassy patch outside the church.

The other main candidate didn't interest her. "I don't know him," she said with a shrug. It is not surprising. In comparison with the glossy Kagame campaign - which has showered Kigali with posters, T-shirts, baseball caps and umbrellas - Mr Twagiramungu's has been invisible. Attempts to hold rallies in large stadiums were blocked by officials and his first election pamphlets were confiscated. He received one third of the airtime on state media, most of it portraying him negatively.

He abandoned rallies and instead stayed at a city apartment where he printed business cards with his photo - his only campaigning material. "It's better like this," he said during an interview on his balcony. "People can slip it into their pockets and nobody will see."

Mr Twagiramungu's history suggests the accusations of "divisionism" are absurd. Hutu extremists murdered four of his brothers. He escaped only by leaping over his back wall and fleeing the country with UN help.

After the genocide, he returned to Rwanda to serve as prime minister under Mr Kagame, before quitting 18 months later. "It is unbelievable," he said. "Why should I care about people who wanted to kill me? At first I was a "cockroach" [the Hutu killers' term for Tutsi] and now I am a "genocidaire". It is pure racism."

Mr Twagiramungu has drawn government fire for suggesting that the Gacaca courts should also investigate Rwandan army war crimes. Tutsi soldiers massacred up to 50,000 Hutus in Rwanda during the genocide and tens of thousands more in neighbouring Congo over the following years. "We have to tell the truth," he said. "Without truth in this country there can be no reconciliation."

Kagame supporters defend the tough measures as necessary to cement fragile national unity. "We must avoid everything that could be a source of unhappiness or a source of division," said the Local Government Minister, Christophe Bazivamo. "Even in Germany, the genocide is not finished, because the Nazi party is banned. We still put such restrictions to stop such a thing happening again."

Rwanda is dependent on foreign aid, with western donors paying for over 75 per cent of government spending. However, there are signs that donor patience is cracking. Rwanda's ruthless prosecution of the Congo war - in which at least 3.3 million people have died - led to pressure for a military withdrawal last year.

The Netherlands suspended €250,000 in election funding two weeks ago in protest at the failure to explain five high-profile "disappearances" dating back to March.

Other western countries say they are unhappy with the blatant election abuses but feel powerless to act. "Do you want to suspend aid to 8 million people?" asked one diplomat.