On August 4, Rwanda will hold its third presidential election since the genocide that nearly destroyed the country in 1994. Current president Paul Kagame has won international praise and much donor support not only for leading the country back from the brink but also for promoting public health and gender equality. Rwanda has the world’s highest percentage of women in Parliament; girls and boys are equally likely to be enrolled in primary school, and rates of maternal and child mortality are among the lowest in Africa.
But, as a new Amnesty International report on Rwanda shows, this rosy picture masks a terrifyingly repressive program of which many courageous Rwandan women have been victims. For over two decades, attacks on opposition supporters, journalists, and human-rights activists have created a climate of fear that renders the election a travesty.
Holes have also recently appeared in the story of Rwanda’s development success. According to Belgian political scientist Filip Reyntjens, Rwanda’s National Institute of Statistics changed the definition of poverty in its household surveys, so that it looked as though poverty had declined between 2010 and 2013, when it actually seems to have risen. A British consulting firm that had collaborated on past household surveys pulled out of this one, citing an unspecified “difference of view.” Western aid workers claim they’ve witnessed the undercounting of maternal and child deaths in health surveys and, in 2015, a Rwandan doctor who confronted the health minister about mismanaged health sector funds died in prison under mysterious circumstances. Former Kagame aide turned critic David Himbara told London’s Daily Mail that “statistical manipulation is so widespread [in Rwanda] that hardly anyone knows what the reality is.”
Rwanda has held two elections since Kagame seized power. Both were marked by voter fraud, ballot stuffing and intimidation and repression of opponents and their supporters. During the 2010 campaigns, an opposition-party vice president, Andre Kagwa Rwisereka, was beheaded; a journalist Jean Leonard Rugambage was shot dead; and two of Kagame’s opponents were jailed. One of them, Bernard Ntaganda, was jailed for four years for organizing an illegal demonstration, which never actually took place. The other, Victoire Ingabire, is serving a 15-year prison sentence for “divisionism.” Her crime was daring to mention that there were Hutu and Twa victims of the Rwandan civil war, as well as Tutsis, and calling for reconciliation and recognition of all victims of Rwanda’s past, regardless of ethnic background.