Rwandans on Saturday celebrated the third term victory of President Paul Kagame who pledged to continue transforming the nation after winning re-election with a record 98 percent of the vote.
There had been little doubt that the 59-year-old would return to the helm of the east African nation which he has ruled with an iron fist since the end of the 1994 genocide.
“I am very pleased. I had hoped for this victory,” said Yvette Uwineza, a 36-year-old computer scientist. “The continuity is reassuring,” she said, crediting Kagame with developing the country and creating “a better life for Rwandans.”
Interim results published by the electoral commission on Saturday gave Kagame an unprecedented victory, outstripping the 95 percent he took in 2003 and 93 percent in 2010.
Saturday’s tally matched the proportion of people who supported a constitutional amendment two years ago permitting Kagame to run for a third, fourth and fifth term potentially seeing him rule until 2034.
“I honored your request, and this (election) confirms that Rwandans made a choice based on the future they want,” Kagame told thousands of supporters at his ruling party’s headquarters in Kigali in the early hours of the morning.
“We are going to continue with the work we started by advocating for a better Rwanda.”
Final results are due later Saturday and the commission estimates 97 percent of 6.9 million voters turned out to cast their ballots.
Of the results so far announced, Kagame had 98.66 percent while his two little-known rivals barely made a dent.
Frank Habineza of the Democratic Green Party — the only permitted critical opposition party — won just 0.45 percent of votes, beaten into third place by the little-known independent candidate Philippe Mpayimana with 0.72.
“I accept the result and congratulate the RPF and Paul Kagame,” Mpayimana told AFP.
“I am not going to stop here. I urge all citizens to join be so we can become stronger for the next election.”
Visionary or despot?
Rwandans celebrated Kagame’s win in muted fashion, with no spontaneous large gatherings in the disciplined nation.
Inside a gymnasium in the capital music and dancers entertained hundreds of party loyalists who celebrated into the morning.
“We are celebrating the presidential election,” said one young man as he danced. “We are celebrating Paul Kagame!” another yelled out next to him.
Kagame has been the de facto leader of Rwanda since, as a 36-year-old, his rebel army routed extremist Hutu forces who slaughtered an estimated 800,000 people — mainly minority Tutsis — and seized Kigali in 1994.
He was first appointed president by lawmakers in 2000.
The lanky former guerilla fighter is one of Africa’s most divisive leaders, with some hailing him as a visionary while critics see a despot aiming to become one of the continent’s presidents-for-life.
Kagame is credited with a remarkable turnaround in the shattered nation, which boasts annual economic growth of about seven percent, is safe, clean and does not tolerate corruption. Rwanda also has the highest number of female lawmakers in the world.
However rights groups accuse Kagame of ruling through fear, relying on systematic repression of the opposition, free speech and the media.
Kagame’s critics have ended up jailed, forced into exile or assassinated. Few Rwandans would dare to openly speak against him.