Queues to vote in Kigali but change is not on ballot

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The Independent Online

Voters queued from dawn to cast their votes in the mountainous central African nation yesterday. But the Rwandan poll is the latest in a series of African elections where the outcome has been carefully pre-arranged.

In Sudan the result of April's vote was carved up in backroom deals, and in Ethiopia in May, election monitors had little to report as the work of government repression was accomplished long before voting started. Rwandans too, trooped to the polls knowing that change was not on the ballot. Nonetheless, officials reported strong turnout.

The soldier president Paul Kagame, who has ruled for 16 years, has been accused of launching a crackdown on all dissent ahead of his second electoral test. As he posted his own vote in the capital, Mr Kagame hit out at foreign criticism of the lack of freedoms in his country.

"I see no problems, but there are some people who choose to see problems where there are not," he said. "They talk about fear, they talk about all sorts of things but they are not even patient enough to wait for Rwandans to speak." But the former general has done little to encourage free speech in a pre-election period in which Rwanda's few independent voices have been silenced, with opposition leaders and journalists murdered, placed under arrest, or forced to flee the country.

Journalists have been dragged through the courts, fled into exile or, in the case of Leonard Rugambage, been murdered. Opposition parties seen as unfriendly to the ruling RPF have been prevented from registering and in some cases their leaders jailed or placed under house arrest while the deputy leader of the Democratic Greens was murdered last month.

Mr Kagame has denied any knowledge of dissident killings and insisted that authorities will fully investigate all deaths. His supporters point to Rwanda's recovery from the horrific events of 1994 in which nearly 800,000 people were killed. Under the rule of the RPF – a Tutsi-led guerilla army-turned political party – Rwanda has doubled its GDP and attracted new investment.

On the campaign trail the ex-military leader has been keen to shed his stiff disciplinarian image, dancing and singing on stage. Mr Kagame insisted yesterday it was not his responsibility to create an opposition but to deliver growth. "We are already on a good footing," he said. "We want to attract more investment and grow our trade with the region and beyond."