There is no doubt that Paul Kagame’s campaigns have been well attended. In Rwanda, the Presidential campaign(s) are big events. They are bracing parties, complete with glamorous music, dance troupes and a lot of fan-fare. This is, even more so, the case for a political party like RPF with immense wealth and means.
For ordinary Rwandans, the campaigns offer a rare chance for them to get a glimpse of the pomp and color that surrounds the political elite. This behavior of passive on- looking is known locally as “gushungera”. If you are a Kigali urbanite, or a white person visiting the Rwandan villages, you must have noticed the kind of attention you attract. If you are driving in a car, kids in their tattered clothes and bare feet will chase after your vehicle for very long distances, never giving up.
The spectacle of Kagame with his convoy of vehicles, no doubt, adds a new component to village life. As such, it helps attract big crowds.
Equally important, the villagers want to see the man, with a tight control over their country. The urge to see is so strong that very few people can resist. Thus, when the New Times Reports that the RPF’s campaigns are, “characterized by extreme excitement [among the peasantry]…” I do not dispute.
However, claims by the Rwanda News Agency, an arm of the Rwandan intelligence that the mammoth turnout is an indication that the RPF will be voted for “100%” is very misleading.
On the surface, Kagame appears to be immensely popular among rural Rwandans. The image given, particularly during this campaign period is that of “A man of the people”, who has taken Rwanda by storm.
Beyond this romantic picturesque, there is another reality that is rarely told.
Thus, you may ask, how can a leader who attracts crowds of thousands at rallies get defeated in elections?
Here is the tragic reason:
On the village level, local officials market RPF’s campaigns as part of a government project necessary to fulfill vision 2020. Just like Gacaca or Umuganda, attendance to these rallies is mandatory. Failure to turn up, which is monitored by the local officials in charge of security, is interpreted as a mild form of treason.
For this crime, you are likely to be reprimanded and possibly punished for being an enemy of the state “kurwanya leta” or/and for subverting the government’s agenda “kutubahiriza gahunda za leta”, or/and disrespect for government authorities “gusuzugura abayobozi”.
Failure to embrace the “government’s agenda” puts one into a constant battle with state authorities, and is a cause for perpetual harassment. Should you be remotely classified as such, it will be hard for you to get access to any social services.For instance, you'll never get a passport, drivers license, certificate of good conduct etc.
This is exactly what has happened to some of Victoire Ingabire, Frank Habineza and Bernard Ntaganda's supporters. In a similar manner, in 2003, Faustin Twagiramungu’s supporters faced the same problem. After the end of the elections, many of his supporters had no option but to flee into exile.
Elections are tense everywhere—but in Rwanda, it means life or death. Any minor breach of the expected order brings unwanted attention. Moving with the “flock” is a common survival strategy. Thus, as a general precaution, when the RPF invites you to the stadium, it is wise to abandon your daily quest for survival, walk the many miles, and show up to their rally.
Under this tightly controlled environment, it is impossible to have a free and fair election. When people are coerced to attend political rallies, their presence, however mammoth, does not represent their satisfaction with the political system. In fact, as is often the case with dictatorships worldwide, such huge gatherings reflect barbaric control and manipulations.
The RPF has tight control over rural Rwanda and they decide what happens and how. On top of their agenda, many believe, is the desire to subvert the spread of democracy in order to guarantee their political survival.