Kagame is triumphant. But has the one-time visionary become Rwanda's latest autocrat?

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The Independent Online

There was seemingly only one candidate in Cyangugu, a sleepy town overlooking Rwanda's western border with Congo.

"Paul Kagame ­ he is the one who brought peace. I would vote for him five or 10 times if I could," Jean Zirakana said moments after voting for the wiry, stern-faced leader.

But other voters claimed they had little choice. Speaking in hushed tones inside a closed office, Félicien said he wanted to elect the opposition contender, Faustin Twagiramungu. But after marking his choice, hovering Kagame officials snatched the ballot back. "They said I had wasted my vote and gave me a second ballot. When I voted for Kagame, they accepted," he said.

As the polls closed yesterday, there was little doubt Mr Kagame would storm home as the first elected president of post-genocide Rwanda, and his party was already preparing a big victory rally. But the election, which was spoilt by intimidation, imprisonment and a hermetic clamp-down on the opposition, may prove a Pyrrhic victory for Mr Kagame.

The poll has soured relations abroad and stoked tensions at home. After halting the carnage of the 1994 genocide, the ascetic soldier-turned-statesman was once hailed as one of Africa's visionary leaders. Now there are fears he is sliding down the path of autocratic rule. Western countries have invested heavily in helping Mr Kagame get this far.

Guilt at the failure to stop the genocide saw millions of pounds in aid flow into the country. Britain, which through the former secretary of state for international developmentClare Short developed a close relationship, was the largest donor.

When he assumed the presidency in 2000 ­ after six years of back-room rule ­ Mr Kagame promised to lead Rwanda to democratic rule. But opponents said the poll was merely a fig-leaf for legitimising the continuation of his benevolent but iron-fisted rule.

The 1994 genocide defined modern Rwanda and shaped Mr Kagame's career. When he was three years old, in 1960, his family fled to Uganda to escape a wave of anti-Tutsi slaughter. He remained in exile for 30 years, helping the Ugandan bush rebel Yoweri Museveni seize power in 1986.

Four years later Mr Kagame was on a US military training course in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, when the Rwandan Patriotic Front rebellion started. Two days later Fred Rwigyema, the RPF leader, was killed, and Mr Kagame returned home to take his place.

The lanky, sober officer was a brilliant leader, forging the fragmented rebels into a fearsome force. The rebellion frightened the Hutu regime. When genocide washed across Rwanda in 1994, Kagame's men pushed south and took power. Afterwards, Western countries rushed to supply aid. But Mr Kagame remained forthright in his criticism of the West, particularly the UN, for failing to act.

Admirers lionised him for saving Rwanda, a portrayal gilded by the American journalist Philip Gourevitch in his bookWe wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families. The emotionally compelling account pieced together the planning and gruesome execution of the slaughter. But it provided a cursory focus to atrocities committed by Mr Kagame's men. Human Rights Watch (HRW) now estimates RPF soldiers massacred up to 50,000 Hutus during and immediately after the genocide ­ war crimes that Mr Kagame now admits but refuses to prosecute. "Kagame comes off sounding like Abraham Lincoln in the book," said one human rights worker in Kigali, Rwanda's capital, who asked not to be named. "But the truth is more ambiguous."

The Congo war brought the first serious criticism. In 1998, Rwanda invaded eastern Congo to hunt down the Hutu killers responsible for the genocide. But the invasion triggered a wider crisis that soon engulfed central Africa.

Up to nine countries were sucked into the fighting. A Pandora's box of local ethnic conflicts was opened up. Civilian atrocities became commonplace, many committed by Rwandan-led forces. Over three million people have died. The Rwandan occupation, accompanied by looting of gold, coltan and diamonds, led to Western pressure on Mr Kagame to pull his troops out, which he did last year.

At home, Mr Kagame has stressed the separation of ethnicity from political power. But while Hutus have been prominent in his administration ­ officially he was subordinate to the president, Pasteur Bizimungu, in the post-genocide years ­ Mr Kagame and a small clique of Tutsis were seen as the real power. Mr Bizimungu was forced to resign for his criticisms, and jailed in April last year, accused of illegal political activity. He has still not been brought to trial.

Alison Des Forges of HRW, an authority on the genocide, was recently tarred as a "genocidal apologist". The International Crisis Group was banned after publishing a critical report last spring. "It is a reflection of fear on the part of the power holder," said Ms Des Forges, who was yesterday testifying in a trial at the war crimes court in neighbouring Tanzania.

Despite the criticism abroad, many Rwandans remain grateful to Mr Kagame for bringing peace and stability.

But the repression of Mr Twagiramungu's campaign by suggesting he is fostering a second genocide ­ known as "ethnic divisionism" ­ is seen as a dangerous precedent. The real test will come as Mr Kagame settles into his seven-year term. He will have to prove his main interest is in reconciling Rwandans, and not in clinging to power at any cost.