Rwandans went to the polls on Friday in an election that was widely expected to extend the long rule of President Paul Kagame, who has guided the country with a steady hand following a genocide two decades ago.

Mr. Kagame appears to be hugely popular at home and has been widely praised abroad for bringing stability to his traumatized country after the Hutu-Tutsi genocide that left hundreds of thousands dead, but there is no viable opposition and dissenting views are frequently silenced.

Victory would allow him to keep power until 2024 and, under recent changes to the Constitution, give him the option to run for two more five-year terms after that, although he has suggested that he will not run again.

Mr. Kagame, sometimes described by his admirers as the African version of Lee Kuan Yew, the architect of modern Singapore, received more than 90 percent of the vote in Rwanda’s past two elections, and virtually unanimous support in the referendum two years ago that allowed him to run for a third time.

Only two opposition candidates — Frank Habineza of the Green Party and the independent Philippe Mpayimana, a former journalist — are running against him this time, but neither was seen as a significant threat, and a third challenger, Diane Rwigara, who had been considered potentially Mr. Kagame’s strongest opponent, was disqualified in July.

The likely re-election of Mr. Kagame has raised concerns that Africa’s “forever presidents” club will gain a new member, and that other leaders in the region will feel reassured that they, too, can cling onto power.

In the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo, for example, President Joseph Kabila is delaying constitutionally mandated elections so that he can prolong his 16-year tenure. In Uganda, President Yoweri Museveni, who came to power over 30 years ago promising to replace his predecessor’s brutal dictatorship with democracy, is still in charge.

Supporters of Mr. Kagame say his extended mandate cannot be compared to that of other rulers in the region in light of his country’s recent history: a state-organized attempt to exterminate one of the two main ethnic groups when Hutus slaughtered Tutsis in 1994.

Still, the election in Rwanda stands in stark contrast to what is happening in nearby Kenya, where citizens are set to go to polls next week after vibrant, unrestricted campaigns by candidates.

In Rwanda, a history of political repression and attacks on dissidents “stifles political debate and makes those who might speak out think twice before taking the risk,” Amnesty International recently wrote in a report.

David Himbara, who was Mr. Kagame’s economic adviser until 2010, when the two men had a falling out, has accused the authorities of manipulating statistics to make Rwanda appear wealthier and more advanced than it really is.

Rwanda is one of the fastest growing economies in Africa, expanding by 8 percent annually, according to the World Bank. But it is still very poor: More than half of the population lives on less than $1.25 a day. “He says he has built an economic lion when Rwanda is a midget in the region,” Mr. Himbara said.

Although Mr. Kagame has sought to compare himself with authoritarian leaders in Asia who transformed their economies, “in Rwanda’s case you have the suppression of human rights that is not delivering economic development,” Mr. Himbara asserted. “That trade-off is not working.”

Despite the criticism, Rwanda has made spectacular strides under Mr. Kagame, who is known to be cerebral and introverted, since he led rebel forces into Kigali, the capital, in 1994 to oust a Hutu-led government after a three-month rampage in which more than 800,000 Tutsis were massacred.

Twenty-three years later, the country is a darling of international donors, praised for its advances in health care and education and for improving the rights of women, who make up a majority of the cabinet and Parliament.

Although Rwanda is still poor, Rwandans’ lives have improved significantly since the genocide. There is an emerging tech hub in Kigali. Streets are clean. Mr. Kagame has even banned plastic bags.

The government says the rate of poverty dropped from nearly 57 percent in 2006 to less than 40 percent in 2014, a remarkable feat compared with the situation in some of Rwanda’s neighbors, like the Democratic Republic of Congo and Burundi, which is still plagued by Tutsi-Hutu violence. The authorities in Rwanda are aiming to transform it into a middle-income country, along the lines of Kenya or Indonesia, by 2020.

More than a third of government revenues come from foreign aid, but Mr. Kagame has been hailed by much of the world’s elite as a “visionary” (former President Bill Clinton) and “among the greatest leaders of our time” (Bill Gates), for using that assistance well.

At the same time, analysts and those who know Mr. Kagame personally say that he has not groomed a successor, nor put in place a system that would ensure that the country’s advances outlast him.

Opposition activists and journalists, who have accused Mr. Kagame of running a “police state,” are routinely jailed. Dissidents have been assassinated, even abroad, according to human rights groups. Mr. Kagame’s former head of intelligence and friend, Patrick Karegeya, who became one of his fiercest critics, was found dead in South Africa in 2014.

Rwanda, she said in a recent interview with the Guardian, “is like a pretty girl with a lot of makeup, but the inside is dark and dirty.”

Naked pictures of Ms. Rwigara appeared online just days after she announced her candidacy against Mr. Kagame. The electoral commission eventually disqualified her over irregularities involving the signatures needed to run.

A leadership should not change just for change’s sake, said Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at Brookings Institution and the director of the Africa Security Initiative, a research organization. “But the danger of perpetuating a one-man rule,” he said, “is what will happen when he is gone?”

Part of the reason Mr. Kagame appears so unwilling to let go is that building Rwanda is his life’s work, said Stephen Kinzer, author of “A Thousand Hills,” a biography of him.

“He is convinced that there is much more to do, and that at this point, he is the best person to do it,” Mr. Kinzer said. “I find difficult to imagine him shrugging his shoulders and walking away and saying, ‘I’ll leave it to the next guy.’ ”

Mr. Kinzer recalled a conversation he had with a Rwandan. “In Africa,” the man told him, “the moment it becomes clear who the next person is, you’re finished.”

In the absence of a successor, the president needs to start creating a political system that would promote institutional stability, Mr. O’Hanlon said, and a multiparty system to lessen the chances of a repeat of the 1994 genocide. Mr. Lee, the former Singaporean leader whom many are quick to compare to Mr. Kagame, took the title of minister mentor toward the end of his career, a move that represented an effort to at least try “to figure out a way to pass over power.”

At the same time, democratic change should be gradual, Mr. Kinzer warned. “The only year when there was some measure of free discourse in Rwanda was the year that led up to the genocide.”

There is a still a sense among Rwandans that “as long as this guy is in power, nothing bad can happen,’” he said. “That is not a bad guarantee considering what is happening in the neighborhood.”

Source:The new York Times

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