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Election Likely To Extend Rwandan President Kagame's Long Rule


There's a presidential election tomorrow in Rwanda. And the man almost certain to win is considered a national hero by many. Incumbent Paul Kagame has been in power for almost two decades. Candidates who have tried to challenge him say they have been intimidated, even accused of treason. NPR's Eyder Peralta reports.

UNIDENTIFIED KAGAME SUPPORTERS: (Chanting in foreign language).

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: Some people walked hours to get here. They trekked from the hills surrounding this village in northern Rwanda. They're here to celebrate the anniversary of the end of the 1994 genocide. But they're also here to see President Paul Kagame. As they wait, they wave flags, they dance and sing songs.

UNIDENTIFIED KAGAME SUPPORTERS: (Singing in foreign language).

PERALTA: Kagame is much more than a head of state. This is the man who, 23 years ago, rallied a beleaguered group of rebels and marched into Kigali to oust the government and end the genocide that killed some 800,000 people. At least in this crowd, you would be hard-pressed to find any detractors. Angelique Nakure says Kagame has built schools and hospitals and he'll do even more if he wins a third term.

ANGELIQUE NAKURE: (Through interpreter) I can tell that - say that Kagame is the best president. And we're still waiting for many things from him, and for sure, everything will come here.

PERALTA: Kagame became president in 2000, and he has been credited with leading a renaissance in this country. The GDP has multiplied, life expectancy has shot up, and Rwanda has become one of the least corrupt countries on the continent. It's a place where every public worker posts their supervisor's cellphone outside their office. And public officials are fired if they don't meet stated goals. There's fiber-optic Internet, and a cop wouldn't dare ask you for a bribe.

UNIDENTIFIED KAGAME SUPPORTERS: (Singing in foreign language).

PERALTA: Suddenly, Kagame emerges from behind the stage, waving, smiling in those iconic, black-rimmed glasses. The crowd receives him as a living hero.


UNIDENTIFIED KAGAME SUPPORTER: (Screaming in foreign language).

PERALTA: But his critics charge there's another reason for that enthusiasm.

FRANK HABINEZA: Rwandans are afraid of their government.

PERALTA: That's Frank Habineza, one of the two men cleared to run against Kagame. Habineza says you should be skeptical of what you hear on the streets of Rwanda. This is a repressive regime that does not accept any criticism, he says. His own Green Party has been hounded.

HABINEZA: We are beaten, our people imprisoned, others exiled. And my deputy president, in 2010, he was assassinated. So basically, when people see all that, people have a reason to fear.

PERALTA: Diane Rwigara, president Kagame's most outspoken critic tried to run for president. But she says the government first shamed her by leaking naked photos of her and then put up insurmountable procedural hurdles. She says security services told people it was treason to support her campaign.

DIANE RWIGARA: It's very dangerous. But the truth of the matter is people are tired. People are ready for change.

PERALTA: To Rwigara, the so-called Rwandan miracle is not real. And she's angered by the suggestion that Kagame's authoritarian streak is just the kind of thing that a fragile country like Rwanda needs.

RWIGARA: We deserve freedom. We're no different than any other human being. Like I said, that's just insulting to me to think that we need to be told what to say and what to do.

PERALTA: Albert Rudatsimburwa is a political analyst and an unapologetic fan of Kagame. He says in Rwanda, ethnic tensions are still fresh after the genocide. So expecting the same freedoms as an advanced democracy is unfair.

ALBERT RUDATSIMBURWA: Those democracies are based on an accumulated wealth that makes things run anyway so that people can play political games. This is not where Africa is - and certainly not Rwanda.

PERALTA: As for Kagame, he declined NPR's request for an interview. But he was asked about political intimidation during a recent press conference. He chuckled and then said...


PRESIDENT PAUL KAGAME: Let me assume what you are saying is correct. If anybody was denied their rights, it's absolutely wrong.

PERALTA: Under a constitutional amendment approved two years ago by Rwandan voters, Kagame could stay in power until 2034. Eyder Peralta, NPR News, Kigali. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.