Election Anxiety in Sub-Saharan Africa: Rwanda’s Ceremonial Victor

By Hanna Schieve

This is the first in a three-part series.

Election controversy has dominated the headlines in Sub-Saharan Africa in recent weeks as officials continue to investigate Kenya’s annulled August vote and make plans for a re-do in late October. The unprecedented action taken by the Kenyan Supreme Court to void the results has instilled a widespread fear of unrest similar to what the country experienced in 2007 when 1,200 people died in clashes following a disputed election. As analysts and reporters hypothesize on how an October election may unfold in Kenya, it’s worth noting that election anxieties are not isolated sentiments in the SSA neighborhood. While Rwanda is grappling with its recent election and Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is considering its own upcoming election, Uganda is looking further ahead. This week, we’ll look back to Rwanda.

In July, President Paul Kagame (pictured) referred to Rwanda’s upcoming election as “just a formality.” As he watched 98.63% of the countrywide vote come in in his favor on August 4, he proved his point. The question, though, is not whether Kagame and his supporters are responsible for ensuring that this election (and the previous two which he won by similarly astonishing margins) were but a formality, but whether genuine multiparty politics would indeed prove degenerative for Rwanda or if suppression will leave dissenters with no choice but to resort to violent extremism.

Rwanda’s tolerance for dissent under Kagame is essentially nonexistent. True, the genocide’s legacy necessitated effective internal security for at least some time, but critics contend that external constraints do not reflect intrinsic stability and cohesion in the bi-ethnic nation. Historically, Rwanda’s leading authorities have maintained their power by suppressing the non-ruling ethnic group. Since the genocide, ethnic classification has been illegal, meaning that it is technically impossible to accuse the current regime of monopolizing the allocation of resources along ethnic lines and it is thus equally difficult to assess the levels of perception that this is happening. It is true that the rapid opening of political space played some role in contributing to the toxic politics that culminated in the killing of half a million Tutsis in 1994 and lessons should be drawn from this mistake, but there is legitimate concern that Kagame’s stronghold-style management of the state could prove to be an overcorrection should the economic growth on which the country bases its extraordinary stability comes to an end.

It is no surprise that Kagame’s reelection was but a formality. After all, his regime operates a ‘consensus’ democracy, not a competitive one. Under this system, political and civil society is greatly restrained, dissent is curtailed, and opposition is eliminated. Critics and opponents of the ruling party are not afforded freedom of speech and are routinely criminalized by the state. Businesswoman and rights activist Diane Rwigara, for example, was disqualified from August’s election under ambiguous terms and was arrested along with two family members just this past week for allegedly committing ‘offenses against state security.’ Bringing in nearly 99% of the vote is notably less impressive when the victor is the one who set the terms.

It is difficult to determine where levels of support for Kagame’s regime truly lies and there is even more difficulty yet in predicting how levels of support may respond to a waning of the economic growth and recovery that has indeed been impressive. President Kagame and the security of the Rwandan state is safe for now, but without proper avenues to express healthy opposition, it is possible for dangerous levels of dissent to conceal itself for a long while before it reaches a boiling point. Here’s to hoping that Kagame has his eye on the thermometer.

Hanna Schieve is an MSc candidate in Conflict Studies at the LSE and is currently working as a Sub-Saharan Africa Intern with AKE International in London. She has experience working in electoral, legislative, and international politics in the U.S. and U.K. as well as within the development field for private foundations

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