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Rwanda's President Headed for Decisive Win

Incumbent Kagame is far ahead at the polls. Vote monitors are satisfied, but a key opposition candidate assails his tactics.

August 26, 2003|Solomon Moore | Times Staff Writer

RUHENGERI, Rwanda — Paul Kagame was headed for a decisive win Monday night in his bid to become Rwanda's first elected president since this mountainous land was plunged into a genocidal conflict in 1994.

With half the ballots counted, the incumbent was running far ahead of all challengers, with more than 94% of the vote.

Dressed in their Sunday best, hundreds of thousands of Rwandans lined up outside brick schoolhouses and police stations in the chill dawn to cast their votes.

Foreign election monitors said they were generally satisfied with Monday's vote.

Many polling stations around the capital and along a rural corridor east of Kigali, the capital, appeared to be orderly and free of signs of repression. Ballots were filled out in private, polls opened and closed on time, and election workers did not appear to be interfering with voting.

Election observers, however, noted that the campaign leading up to the election was deeply flawed: The main opposition party was disbanded and a number of leading dissidents were arrested or forced into exile. But the observers credited Kagame with holding a multiparty election, especially so soon after Rwanda's ordeal.

Kagame and his party, the Rwandan Patriotic Front, celebrated their victory with a midnight rally at the Kigali soccer stadium, where campaign paraphernalia was tacked to every flat surface and the voice of rapper Ja Rule blared over the loudspeakers.

For many ordinary Rwandans, Monday's vote signified a milestone for their wounded nation. It was a return to relative normality nine years after rampaging killers shot, clubbed and hacked to death 800,000 of their countrymen in interethnic violence. Most of the violence was directed at Rwanda's Tutsi minority, although many Hutus also perished.

But leading opposition candidate Faustin Twagiramungu continued to complain Monday about heavy-handed tactics by Kagame's government, even as the heads of the national election commission and Rwanda's national police unveiled fresh charges against the dissident.

Both agencies accused Twagiramungu of employing ethnically divisive campaign rhetoric in contravention of the recently approved Rwandan Constitution. Also, the commissioner general of the police force, Frank Mugambage, said at a news conference that 10 Twagiramungu poll observers were arrested two days before the election for allegedly holding a political meeting without government permission. Mugambage also alleged that unidentified participants at that meeting had informed the government that the 10 were planning grenade attacks on poll stations around the country.

Mugambage's deputy initially offered to make those accusers available for interviews, but he later reneged, saying they lived too far away. Mugambage said no grenades were in evidence yet, but he insisted that the government had extensive testimony and documentation to back up its claims. He declined to make that documentation available to reporters. Mugambage said the police are holding the men without charges and can do so indefinitely.

"Our investigation will continue until we find enough grounds to take whatever action," Mugambage said.

In an interview at his home Monday, Twagiramungu called the accusations "absurd," and he said Kagame was using the police to squelch dissent. Twagiramungu, who served as prime minister shortly after the interethnic violence, lost 42 family members -- including several brothers -- in the bloodshed.

"How could they say this thing about me?" he asked. "Why does the government always find cases against people who oppose Kagame?

"I don't know whether I will be arrested or not," said Twagiramungu, discussing the accusations against him. "I don't care. If they have a serious case against me, I am waiting."

Most people interviewed Monday, especially those outside Kigali, said they were unaware of the conflict between the two leading candidates or the Kagame regime's alleged human rights abuses against opponents. The majority said they wanted to vote for Kagame and for the status quo that has brought to Rwanda a measure of prosperity, dignity and security, if not full democratic liberties.

Last year, Rwanda achieved one of Africa's highest economic growth rates at 10%. The government has also increased the number of schools, and for the first time it is offering free primary school education to children. Kagame has also made Rwanda, once overrun by gunmen, one of the safest countries in Africa.

"We want security," said Jean Baptiste Byago, 29, a computer consultant in Ruhengeri, an hour's drive west of Kigali. "People were traumatized enough before; now we just want safety. If you have that, other things can take place. You can't have anything without security."

Mugenu Fabien, 26, a college student, said the area around Ruhengeri, which is home to endangered mountain gorillas, used to be infested with armed militias. Kagame's government has eradicated most of the militants, Fabien said.

"This place was a place of insurgencies," said Fabien, adding that more than 600 people were killed in Ruhengeri, mostly by government soldiers looking for rebels, during the Rwandan bloodshed in 1994. "We want to be rid of that, so we are voting for someone strong."

Glenys Kinnock, an observer for the European Union and a member of the European Parliament, said most of the Rwandans she met want peace and security.

"They all want food on the table and their kids in school," she added. "So they feel that the status quo is best.

"But you could never describe this as a process that is democratic in the classic sense. For that, you need to be able to speak freely, to assemble freely, to organize as a political party. You can't be expected to just pop up and be elected.

"Given where Rwanda has come from, they have had to be disciplined, but there is a difference between that and repression."

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