One important clue comes from campaign rallies. Thousands of people, joyously singing and dancing, routinely flock to events staged for the incumbent president by the ruling party. There are two other officially allowed candidates, but almost no one shows up to see them speak.
The stark difference is easily explained. Show up at an opposition rally and you can bet that the authorities will note your presence. Attendance at Kagame’s events, by contrast, is expected — since the president has given orders to all local officials to ensure turnout. The key, in both cases, is one simple word: fear. Anyone who doesn’t show loyalty to Kagame is considered to be “an enemy of the state.”
The supporters of the regime sneer at those who claim that Kagame’s popular support is buttressed by intimidation. The president, they say, is genuinely loved by Rwandans for his success in bringing economic growth, reliable health care and a relatively fair court system, all while reducing corruption to levels many other countries would envy. Plus, through sheer force of personality, he has managed to unite the country after the horrific genocide of 1994, in which close to a million Rwandans — overwhelmingly members of the Tutsi minority — were slaughtered in just 100 days.
Kagame’s positive achievements are genuine. But they can also be seen as the more palatable side of an all-encompassing system of social control that knows few equals in the world. Rwanda’s government, led by Kagame’s ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), is a finely meshed organization that reaches down into the smallest villages. Local government officials maintain detailed files on every household, and a dense network of informers keeps track of citizens’ behavior and thinking. Visiting foreigners are rarely aware of this reality, but Rwandans know it well. People from my country often use an idiom in our native language of Kinyarwanda that captures it well: “Even the trees are listening,” they say.
Rwanda has a long history of intrusive government, but it is the experience of genocide — which was finally brought to an end by the invading RPF, then an insurgent group based in neighboring countries — that has given birth to what can only be described as a form of institutionalized paranoia. Kagame and his comrades in the Tutsi-dominated RPF are only too aware that many members of the majority Hutus were once active participants in mass murder. As a result, the current government tends to view any attempt to question the existing system as subversion at best, and often as a first step to a new genocidal conspiracy at worst.
This mentality is reinforced by Kagame’s own background as a former military intelligence officer and rebel leader. During his long years in Ugandan exile, he knew that he and his party would never be able to come to power by peaceful means, and events bore that prediction out. For him, “constructive opposition” is a contradiction in terms. To Kagame and his entourage, criticism always entails a security threat.
Kagame has correspondingly tightened his control of the armed forces. Today, the most respected and outspoken military officers are in prison, exile or dead. To name but one of the most recent examples, Patrick Karegeya, Rwanda’s former intelligence chief, was killed in South African exile on Jan. 1, 2014.
But this grim fate is not restricted to former military men. Journalists, independent businessmen and members of the opposition have all faced various degrees of state-sponsored terror. They range from Charles Ingabire, a reporter who was shot to death in Uganda in 2011, to Pasteur Bizimungu, Kagame’s predecessor as president, who stepped down in 2000, and was later arrested and sentenced to 15 years in prison on charges of embezzlement, inciting ethnic hatred and attempting to form a militia. His defenders say that his real crime was attempting to form his own opposition party. When Rwandans see what can happen to people who once enjoyed power and prestige, they rightly conclude that they are better off keeping their mouths shut.
In 2012, three years before I was forced to leave for an exile of my own, I had the privilege to pay a visit in prison to Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza. In 2010, Ingabire, an outspoken and eloquent woman, had returned to Rwanda from the Netherlands, where she had lived for the previous 17 years, to challenge Kagame. But, as she told me in a voice strikingly subdued, she had failed to reckon with the nature of the Rwandan regime. After four months in Kigali, she was thrown in jail, where she remains today.
Kagame is smart. He knows how to turn his country’s dark history to his own advantage. When westerners try to criticize him for his failure to uphold human rights, Kagame points out that their countries either failed to prevent the genocide or actively abetted it, skillfully using their own feelings of guilt to silence them. So far it’s been a highly effective strategy. But that doesn’t change the reality that Rwanda is a country where fear reigns supreme.