A young boy donning a paper hat emblazoned with the name of the ruling party, the Rwandan Patriotic Front, tried to climb the small hill on which we were standing, waiting for Rwandan President Paul Kagame to arrive. He was sent back down by a stern-looking police officer. The crowd at this campaign rally in rural northern Rwanda was organized with the efficiency of a Disneyland parade, with barricades and clearly marked walkways but also free water, medical workers and a mobile health clinic. The music picked up, and all of a sudden Kagame was circling through the crowd. In a frenzy, the young boy and all those with any chance of clambering up the embankment did so, trying to catch a glimpse of the president. The police officer did not even try to hold back the throng.
On Friday, Kagame was reelected in a landslide. The turnout and vote share for Kagame were equally incredible. The Rwanda Electoral Commission reported that well over 90 percent of Rwanda’s 6.9 million registered voters turned out to vote and that Kagame won 98.63 percent of the vote. Neither of his challengers managed to win 1 percent of the vote.
Having completed two terms in office already, Kagame’s ability to run this year was only possible with an amendment to the constitution. In late 2015, more than 6 million Rwandans voted “yes” — 98 percent in favor with 98 percent turnout — in a referendum that allowed the president to run for a third term. The referendum also changed the length of presidential terms from seven years to five years, to be effective in 2024.
Scholars, the media, and democracy advocates pounced on Kagame, assailing him for bending the rules to stay in power. Critics contend Rwanda is a police state in which no amount of dissent is tolerated, in which apparent development progress is based on fabricated data, where opponents are tracked down and killed. Supporters, including the likes of Howard Buffett and Bill Gates, consider Rwanda a development miracle.
How should we understand Kagame’s overwhelming win?
Let’s first address some of common explanations. Are some Rwandans intimidated by the state? Certainly. Does the ruling party have roots down to the lowest level? Definitely. Do opposition candidates have far fewer resources? Undeniably. Are some of those who wish to run for president unable to? Yes.
But to stop the analysis there misses the larger story. This story begins not with the 1994 genocide, but with decades of conflict, armed or otherwise, among a people whose only real difference is an ethnic identity that was a product of colonial rule. These decades of conflict, culminating in a bloodbath that killed nearly a million people, left a piece of territory called Rwanda that would be unrecognizable to a visitor to the country today.
The fabric of society, ripping for decades until finally shredded completely, must be hewed together anew. Killers and victims must live together. The government must find a way to exercise a monopoly of violence over its territory. The economy must return to its feet. Somehow, Rwandans, under the leadership of Kagame, managed to do that.
Even the president’s fiercest critics have a difficult time ignoring Rwanda’s progress in human development, especially in health. Under-age 5 mortality has fallen from 152 to 52 deaths per thousand between 2005 and 2015, among the fastest rates of decline in recent history.
Some argue that the government cooks the books, especially for figures on economic development. However, a novel approach to the measurement of income, using data from mobile phones, shows that government population surveys show a high correlation with a measure of income that could not have been tampered with.
Is everyone happy? No. Life remains very hard for many Rwandans. Rwanda is still one of the poorest countries in the world, with few natural resources and underdeveloped human capital. Rural Rwanda is a far cry from the sparkling new hotels and endless rows of streetlights in Kigali. But whatever the challenges, whatever his faults, many people credit Kagame with ushering Rwanda back from total destruction.
This history is the backdrop on which we must analyze contemporary political support for the regime. For many Rwandans, voting for Kagame may be a reaffirmation — public and private — of a commitment to maintain the political settlement that has brought peace.
A vote in this context is not just a vote; it is also part of a public ritual, creating common knowledge about the legitimacy of the state. The act of voting, especially in rural environments with small communities, is highly social and easily observed. Your friends and neighbors might not see which box you tick, but they will know whether you went to the polling booth or stayed home in your garden. They will know whether you trekked to the campaign rally. For these reasons, some people may fear disapproval for not voting even in the absence of explicit coercion.
And many sincerely adore Kagame. They are at once flabbergasted and exasperated by those who vilify their leader and suggest their voice does not matter. On election day, they proudly took selfies sporting ink-stained thumbs, echoing the sentiment that rung through the campaign: Kagame is my choice.
Is it sincere support for Kagame or social pressure that drives such high turnout in Rwanda today? Almost certainly both. Recent research has argued that turning out to vote is a social act, and this behavior cannot be well explained without taking into account an individual’s social ties. Combine the social context of voting in Rwanda with the country’s unique history, and the high turnout and overwhelming support for Kagame begins to look less farcical.
Finally, a post-genocide generation of Rwandans constitutes an ever-larger share of the voting age population, including in this most recent election. The young boy scrambling to get a glimpse of the president may be voting in 2024, unfettered by the weights his parents bore, more certain his future will be free of violence. Whether a generational shift can shake Rwanda free of the chains of history remains to be seen, and is ultimately the business of Rwandans.