Paul Kagame has been President of Rwanda since 2000 and is the leader of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). Previously, it would not have been possible for him to run for a third term but a reform of the Rwandan Constitution, approved in a 2015 referendum by a 98% majority, means that he could now stand until 2034. Kagame won the 2003 elections with a 93% share of the vote, and the 2010 elections with the same share. He is widely expected to win this year’s election too.
Paul Kagame’s popularity among Rwandans and foreign governments is largely due to the fact that he is seen by many as a hero who united Rwandans following the 1994 genocide that killed 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus. Not only is he regarded as the saviour who he led rebel forces into Kigali in 1994 to end the genocide, but also as the leader who brought Rwandans together to rebuild the country.
Rwanda’s growing GDP has also contributed to Kagame’s reputation, both at home and among donors and foreign governments. The genocide destroyed the economy but the country is hailed by many as a post-conflict economic miracle. According to official government numbers, Rwanda’s economy has grown by an average of 8% between 2001 and 2014, while the poverty rate decreased by 6% between 2010/11 and 2013/14. Rwanda is also investing in the tech sector, gender equality, the environment, education and public health.
However, Paul Kagame is facing increasing criticism, although it is hard to assess the public perception that Rwandans have of the president. Internationally, the image of Rwanda as a post-conflict “economic miracle” is disputed by some because the information is based purely on government statistics. Kagame’s leadership style, viewed by some as increasingly authoritarian, is also undergoing more scrutiny. There have been allegations of human rights violations against political opponents, civil society leaders and the media, some of whom have been killed, imprisoned or found refuge abroad. These problems could affect the legitimacy of the government and the fragile relationship between Rwandans.
At the beginning of the electoral campaign, President Kagame had several opponents, notably Diane Rwigara, his strongest opponent. However, she was disqualified by the national electoral commission, along with two independent candidates, for not meeting the requirements for candidacy. The remaining opponents are Frank Habineza and Philippe Mpayimana, who are not well known among the electorate and have limited funds to run their campaigns.
Kagame has spoken of the need for increased inter-African trade: “We still have … more work to do, to strengthen continental integration and raise the share of intra-African trade, which at 15%, is unacceptably low. Africa needs to be more resilient in the face of consistent global shocks and increasing protectionism. Too often, we find ourselves at a disadvantage when negotiating trade with other parts of the world. And within all this, there is the ever increasing need for Africa to industrialise. These factors should not just remain objects of reference. Instead, they should drive us to urgently increase trade with each other, invest more within our countries and regions, and build joint infrastructure, in order to better facilitate the movement of people and goods within Africa.”
Kagame has also spoken of the need for Africa to play a more dynamic and proactive role in the international community: “We in Africa need to shift from expectation of largesse from every incoming [U.S.] administration, to a mind-set of what Africa and the United States can do together, that is of mutual benefit. It’s really an opportunity to shape appropriate relationships with the United States, and other global partners, based on Africa’s priorities and ambitions.”