No illusions: A futile campaign for Kagame’s rivalsThu, 11 Jul 2024 12:47:50 GMT

A small convoy speeds along KK15, a four-lane road lined with the red, white and blue flags of Rwanda’s ruling party and posters urging people to vote for President Paul Kagame.Opposition candidate Frank Habineza is heading out to a campaign rally in eastern Rwanda in a 4×4 in the green and yellow colours of his Democratic Green Party.But in the days before Monday’s presidential and legislative elections, Kagame and his Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) are everywhere.Although victory for Kagame and his party is assured, Habineza says he hopes to cause an upset.When he ran in the last election in 2017, Habineza scraped just 0.48 percent of the vote against Kagame’s whopping 98.79 percent.Kagame has been Rwanda’s strongman since the end of the 1994 genocide, when his RPF militia overthrew the extremist Hutu regime which instigated the vicious killing spree that left around 800,000 people dead, mainly from the Tutsi minority.- Kagame critics barred -The 66-year-old — the only leader most Rwandans have ever known — enjoys great popularity, notably for rebuilding a ruined economy after the genocide.But he is also accused of muzzling the opposition, and only two candidates were approved to run against Kagame out of eight applicants.Habineza’s party is also the only one of 11 officially registered parties, not counting the RPF, that does not support Kagame. The lineup for Monday’s presidential race is a carbon copy of the 2017 election, with only Habineza and independent Philippe Mpayimana authorised to stand.Several outspoken anti-Kagame figures were barred, including Victoire Ingabire, Diane Rwigara and Bernard Ntaganda.- ‘It’s not for free’ -On the road to the Eastern Province, Habineza’s convoy attracts attention as it blares out Democratic Green Party songs.Children rush to watch… but they’re wearing visors and waving flags of the RPF, which passed through the day before. In the village of Juru, it’s market day. Nearly 100 people gather near the party’s yellow and green marquees, intrigued by the music and a comedian’s stand-up routine ahead of Habineza’s speech.The vast majority came only out of curiosity, their votes already destined for Kagame.Habineza, 47, says the atmosphere is better than in 2017.”People were not used to us. They were thinking that we are enemies of the country. So the reception was very bad. We were sent to campaign in a graveyard, people were throwing stones at us, we were beaten in some places.”His party has had a rough time since it was established in 2009 — including the assassination of its vice-president in 2010 and Habineza’s subsequent exile in Sweden, followed by his return in 2012.The party finally entered parliament in 2018 with two lawmakers.”The space we have today, we have struggled for it and we are still struggling to maintain it. It’s not for free,” he said.- Kagame ‘too strong’ -Mpayimana presents himself as an “opponent” wanting to build on Kagame’s “positive record”.”It’s good to see that people are no longer afraid to listen to other candidates,” he said, but added: “We are facing a candidate who is too strong.”The campaign battle is unequal, with Kagame’s challengers unable to match the RPF’s financial resources and numbers.Habineza financed his campaign with donations from individuals and the sale of a party property.Mpayimana says he received some donations and saved two or three months’ salary, describing his campaign as “not extravagant”.- ‘Convenient fig leaf’ -For journalist Michela Wrong, author of the book “Do Not Disturb” about Kagame’s repressive rule, the challengers are a “convenient fig leaf” for the regime.”It allows Kagame to present this as a multi-party contest, which is really not the case.”She said it was a “key moment” when Ingabire and then Rwigara were prevented from running.Rwigara’s candidacy was rejected for failing to provide a criminal record statement or a document proving her Rwandan nationality.She insists she submitted all required documents but that the electoral commission “came up with all kinds of excuses like in 2017”.Rwigara was barred from the 2017 race for allegedly forging the signatures of supporters for her application and was jailed before being acquitted and released in 2018.”It is not easy to be in the opposition…You have to find a way to be independent and also not anger the party in power.She said she does not expect much from Monday’s vote: “We already know the outcome, we already know who is the winner.”